Daniel J Siegel (2012) describes the window of tolerance as the zone in which the “various intensities of emotional arousal…can be processed without disrupting the functioning of the system”, where thoughts, emotions and behaviours remain balanced and effective. Much has been written about the habitual narrower ‘width’ of the window for those who have experienced trauma and adversity, as well as the importance of widening the window of tolerance as part of the work of healing trauma. This recognises the significance of being able to effectively process and integrate our day to day experiences, and cope with greater extremes of arousal, rather than being high-jacked by the intense responses of the limbic system (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006). Learning the skills required to do this takes patience and practice, as well as an acknowledgment of the tensions that inevitably arise.
Widening our window of tolerance requires us to find that that seemingly magic point between triggers and our automatic reactions, in order to:
- become aware of heightened or dampened physiological cues that indicate we are on the verge of becoming dysregulated, threatening to “disorganise the functioning of the system” (Siegal, 2012);
- become aware of the engrained mental representations that sustain the activation of the dysregulated state (Siegel, 2012); and
- build an ability to tolerate distress and work against the instinct of defending against discomfort through avoidance (or dissociation)
Finding the magic space, where discomfort is present but not all-consuming, allows us to sit with uncomfortable sensations such as tension or anger before they become panic, terror or rage. This pause – or pushing against the boundary of our optimum state of arousal – allows us to reflect on and understand our inner experience, which in turn eventually creates more space to actively choose a response that more accurately matches the reality of the present momentrather than reacting to it from a place of perceived unsafety (arising from what has happened in the past or feared in the future). The process takes time and must be carefully titrated and paced, as being present with activated feelings and emotions can be incredibly daunting. The dual process of consciously monitoring and attending to the body (for example, focusing on continually relaxing constricted muscles which have likely been conditioned to hold tension as the permanent state) adds additional levels of both physical and mental stress and exhaustion.
Learning to be less reactive to environmental and/or psychological trauma triggers is supported by practicing the pause within a reparative relationship, which ideally acts as both a container and a scaffold. What this means is that emotional distress is seen, held and understood by supporting partner as a preface to being able to find safety within our own skin, recognising it as the boundary to our internal and external worlds that we have the right to protect. The relationship also provides the necessary conditions for exploration to build new skill and knowledge. In this way, trusting and attuned relationships (whether within a structured therapeutic relationship, or as part of a caregiver-child dyad) open up a willingness to attempt new ways of being in the body and with the mind that tame the fight and flight response, often through interactive, dyadic regulation (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006).
However, both partners in the dyad must be aware of how shame may be operating when actively working on widening the window and practicing the pause. Shame is a relational emotion, expressed in response to interpretations of interpersonal experiences, therefore the interaction between the dyad can foster or inhibit exploratory responses. The act of being witnessed, and having sensory and emotional content accurately attuned to and interpreted is at the core of our ability to self-regulate (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006), however for those who have experienced trauma, simply being looked at can trigger a return to ‘survival mode’ (Van der Kolk, 2014). It is important to recognise that a supporting partner making comment on new awareness or skill development too soon can trigger shame. The triggering of shame through innocuous comment by the caregiver or therapist before new skills are integrated (for example, “Well done, you stayed so calm!) can set the process back. This response is likely to stem from attachment patterns and its association with exploration as discussed below.
For those who have experienced secure attachment, exploration and curiosity develops naturally, with securely attached children literally safe in the knowledge that a caregiver will come to their assistance if needed (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006). Without this felt sense of safety, the thought of exploration can take an ominous turn - if I venture too far, will anyone be there when I return? Am I able to seek out what I desire or will my interest in the otherbe perceived as a threat to my caregiver/therapist? Considering these questions, it is easy to understand why trying out new things can evoke fear beyond the intrapersonal impacts of tolerating our own distress, also becoming an interpersonal concern. Being on the receiving end of comments intended to be encouraging and complimenting can induce shame by shifting attention from the act of moderating our own distress towards an assessment of the appropriateness of this same activity in terms of its impact on the other, and their responses to it. Those who have experienced relational trauma have varying ability to accurately interpret prosody and other social behaviours, with positive affect sometimes perceived as dangerous and threatening. For some, being complimented is too closely related to traumatic experiences which resulted in betrayal (and sometimes, later rejection or abandonment) and therefore the receiver is faced with the dilemma of accepting the compliment and acknowledging their success whilst also fearing the intentions and consequences behind the acknowledgement. Similarly, the compliment can result in paralysis or self-sabotage in that being witnessed taking action can induce terror about their incompetence and inevitable failure, a sense of unworthiness, or an impending attack by critical others (Cikanavicius, 2018). In order to avoid unintended consequences of innocuous commentary, caregivers and therapists must carefully reflect on their own feelings and motivations, and of course their own attachment behaviours.
These tensions point to the crucial role reflexivity plays in our healing journey and in supporting others to heal from trauma through a reparative relationship. Being able to provide relational safety cues, and repair breaks in emotional co-regulation as they inevitably occur requires caregivers and therapists to prioritise safety, remaining aware not only of intentions but the impact of communication (Delahooke, 2019). In many ways, both members of the dyad are practicing the pause, resulting in a dance of duality that is the magic space.
Cikanavicius, D. (2018). Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults.
Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviours: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioural challenges. Eau Claire, WI, USA: PESI Publishing & Media.
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York, NY, US: W W Norton & Co.
Siegel, D.J. (2012). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York, USA: Guilford Press.
Van der Kolk, B.A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, USA: Viking.