by Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT
In recent years, trauma researchers have learned that the nervous system has an important role in regulating extreme stress and have learned some techniques in regulating it. You have probably heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response which describes our body’s need to seek safety when feeling danger by defending ourselves or running away. Let’s begin by understanding the benefits of a regulated nervous system.
How does a regulated nervous system work?
A regulated nervous system experiences stress and calming responses through the course of a day. Perhaps you are walking down the street and a person yells at you to watch where you are going. When your nervous system is regulated you will have an initial feeling of stress, then you will scan your environment for danger. You realize that the person is yelling at someone else who is crossing the street as a car turns the corner and your body starts to calm itself down back to baseline. Dr. Siegel of UCLA coined the term “window of tolerance” which refers to this space in which we can regulate ourselves without too much effort. But what happens when someone experiences a trauma?
What is the Window of Tolerance?
The window of tolerance model describes normal brain and body reactions especially following adversity. The concept suggests that we all have a certain amount stressors that we can handle. When we are within our window of tolerance, we can cope with stresses, calm our body’s down, and think through how best to solve problems.
Everyone’s window of tolerance is different.
One person may have a wider window of tolerance and be able to experience feelings of anxiety, anger, or sadness without feeling overwhelmed. While another person might get set off by something that seems small. Stress levels can build up causing one to operate right at the edge of their window of tolerance when someone says something mean and it tips the person over the edge.
What happens to the nervous system when a trauma occurs?
Trauma overstimulates the nervous system beyond its ability to self-regulate. A stressful experience can cause the nervous system to be stuck “on” causing a person to feel anxious, panic, anger, hyperactivity, and restlessness. Their body is experiencing fight or flight mode and is ready to move and defend itself. One’s nervous system can also become stuck “off” or below the window of tolerance and experience depression, fatigue, and disconnection. Systems can get stuck above or below the window of tolerance or go back and forth between the two causing the individual to use great amounts of energy just for daily functioning.
A person may also experience “freeze” in which the body’s system can become paralyzed by fear and freeze much like a “deer in the headlights” or a possum freezing when it senses danger. This reaction occurs in situation where you cannot flee or defend yourself, so your body resorts to another way of protecting itself- freezing. Our body is geared for survival and in the face of danger it wants to protect you whether the situation is one where a vicious dog might bite you or you are afraid of being mugged in a dark alley.
What is Traumatic Stress?
Traumatic stress is defined as “anything that is too much, too soon, or too fast for our nervous system to handle”. For example, a child experiencing the terminal illness of a parent doesn’t have the coping skills to weather the times the parent must be in the hospital and their eventual death. This experience is “too much” and “too soon” for their nervous system to handle. When a child is forced to deal with an adult issue before they have had enough time to build up coping skills, they will be overwhelmed and have a hard time regulating their nervous system. They may go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. It has been proposed that when an individual freezes in response to a traumatic experience this is a predictor for developing PTSD symptoms later on. As an adult, they may experience the freezing action again when under stress.
What you can do to discharge the traumatic stress and regulate your nervous system?
It is possible to increase your window of tolerance through using coping and relaxation skills in your daily life. Noticing when you are frustrated, anxious, sad, or stressed and stopping to use relaxation skills such as drinking a big glass of water, deep belly breaths, or going outside and attuning to nature can help you reregulate your body’s nervous system before you get overwhelmed. Once you crossed the threshold into being overstimulated, time and patience is needed as you give yourself compassion and understanding.
A Trained Trauma Therapist can help you gain freedom from your reactions.
A trained trauma therapist can help you identify your triggers and what’s causing you to react and also provide you with strategies and tools tailor-made to you. Curious to hear more about handling stress, anxiety, or anger? At Relationships Matter Austin, we specialize in mindfulness techniques to help you manage your anxiety, anger, and stress in your life.
Carlene Lehmann, M.A., LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist at Relationships Matter Austin in Austin, Texas. Carlene is trained and experienced in research-based techniques to help you regulate your nervous system and experience more balance and calm in your life. To schedule your appointment with Carlene, you can reach her at (512) 994-0432 or request an appointment with her on the Relationships Matter Austin Scheduling Page.