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Somatic Experience

Exploring Your Bodily Responses: Understanding the Window of Tolerance


Whether we're encountering a real danger, such as smelling smoke from a house fire, or sensing a potential threat, like racking our brain trying to remember if we turned the stove off, the same physiological response is activated. The way each individual reacts to this heightened nervous system activity is influenced by lots of things, including our family of origin, trauma history, any encounters with micro-aggression or discrimination, and our relationship dynamics, both past and present. The ideal baseline levels of activity, which enable us to regulate and comprehend our experiences, are contained within our "window of tolerance."

When faced with those real or perceived threats, our brains go into survival mode and are pushed outside of this window into one extreme or the other. Our amygdala (the feeling center of the brain) sends an immediate signal to our hypothalamus, which acts as a command center to tell the body to fight, flee, or freeze. We are overstimulated, sounding the alarms, and therefore detached from the brain regions responsible for logical thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication.

There are two opposing poles outside our window of tolerance, known as hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal. Hyper-arousal consists of intense states like rage, panic, or mania, and is associated with high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweating and shaking. Hypo-arousal is the shutting off or absence of any feeling: denial, avoidance and numbness are common here, as well as depressive states. We may find ourselves nauseous, dizzy, sensitive to sound and light, or sleeping a lot, because the nervous system is attempting to save energy for the next time an immediate threat resurfaces.

The good news is that there are things we can do to bring us back into our window of tolerance. If we find ourselves in hyper-arousal, it may help to engage in calming activities like taking a bath or shower, repetitive cleaning tasks, or mindfully eating a snack by taking a deep breath in between each bite. When we're in hypo-arousal, it can be useful to try moving our bodies, immersing ourselves in enjoyable activities like listening to music or watching something funny, or anything that activates the senses. If all else fails, I tell my clients to go outside and lie down in the grass for a few minutes.

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