It's Not a Window & It's About More than Tolerance.
There’s a construct in trauma psychology called The Window of Tolerance. Maybe you heard of it years ago; maybe it’s brand new to you. Pat Ogden and Dan Siegel lay claim to it together. You can watch Ogden talk about it here. It caught on. It’s got a Goldilocks appeal. There’s a porridge that’s not too hot, not too cold, just right feeling to it. We just have to find our way to that window where the good porridge is available. If you didn’t watch the video the first time I mentioned it, it would be good watch it now, unless you already know what I’m talking about. It’s 3 minutes and 43 seconds of your life. In that time you could do the PT exercises you kick yourself for not doing or floss your teeth really well or just stim.
So, Ogden makes a music analogy and I can see how she made the leap, but it still isn’t a window. It’s I don’t know . . . a keel, the deep ocean, the Holy Grail. If anywhere, I’d put it below both the freeze/dissociation response and the sympathetic arousal/fight-flight-fawn response — at least when thinking about trauma activation. But the good place isn’t just under the churning and the frozen it’s heaven and earth when you feel it. It’s home and space, connection and boundary. Neurologically it’s probably occasional dopamine hits arising out of a catch of a fallen object and the hearing of an owl’s call, and the anticipation of a walk down to the creek with your grandchild or grandparent. You don’t dive through this good place to get to dissociation, and you don’t climb up through it to get hyper-activated. The good place isn’t in the middle. Otherwise you’d stay a while and order a cup of tea, pick up a book, start a conversation, solve a math problem, instead of plunging or rocketing through it.
Hypo-arousal, or non-arousal is not a sign of being under-activated. It means you are over-activated, and it’s not safe, for one reason or another to move that through, Fighting or running or begging for help won’t make things better. There is a volcano under that frozen crust. It’s still an active volcano—even if it waits 800 years like the one going off in Iceland right now.
For sure there are different things to do depending on which physiologic state you are in, and those strategies have merit. It’s important to know where you are though, and I don’t think the WoT, as it is described and visually presented helps with this. Further increasing the challenge level is the fact that sometimes, maybe oftentimes, people are in both dissociation and sympathetic arousal at the same time. The nervous system is an amazing thing. If you are hypervigilant and involuntarily masking your experience at the same time (hello autistic people) you are in both at the same time. If people think you’re calm and your heart is racing, you’re running both. Masterful. Foot on the accelerator and foot on the brakes, hands on the steering wheel for dear life. Hell on your system over the long haul, but masterful, nonetheless. What your neurological system has to do to accomplish that! You get somewhere and don’t get somewhere at the same time —kind of like Schrodinger’s cat — except for us it’s more like we do something but it’s not us really doing it, because we’re not really all there.
I guess I get all worked up about this language, because people have, for so long, misinterpreted autistic people in their dissociation from sensory and emotional overwhelm. These misinterpretations lead to the creation of behavioral expectations that push, cajole, or shame people to do more of what causes them distress, when they really need to do less —or less of what people want them to do. What they need is to do more of what soothes them, more of what gives them pleasure —which may be rest. Hypo or non-reactive is not hypo-aroused. It is hyper-masked. Which can look and feel like anxiety and depression at the same time. This is certainly not just about autistic people. This is especially true of people with complex PTSD and regular old PTSD, of many neurodivergent people, and oppressed and marginalized people in general. I’m always more careful with people who say they can’t feel stuff. Better to touch the crust carefully and find out if and where it wants to give a little, maybe just sit next to it and notice the world together. It will be a big deal to let a little go when it does come, even if it’s just a thin stream of magma. And yeah, sometimes it just blows, regardless of your best efforts. Just don’t push it if you can help it.
Okay. I’m done with the Not a Window part. Now for tolerance. I understand why this word emerged. There is something we are protecting ourselves from when we dissociate or go into sympathetic arousal. Sometimes its physical danger or pain. Other times it’s emotional pain. Often it’s both. To come out of trauma activation, we’re going to have to let that danger be present in our consciousness, which means in our felt sense. There can be strength in saying, “I can tolerate this. I can be with this pain.” Sometimes tolerance is the best we can do. But it’s like saying the good place is where our anxiety isn’t bad, when I want to say the good place is where I feel more— more pleasure, more possibility, more pain, more me. And that is more than tolerance. This is returning to my center and being in the world at the same time.
There’s also an inner linguistic problem in that what I’m tolerating is all wrapped up in me. I hid, I ran, I let them do that to me. I am too angry, too violent, too childlike, too shut down. And there’s no way that I is going to start coming around unless they are seen, held, and honored. I know that Ogden/Siegel mean tolerating the discomfort, letting it be not too much. But working with myself or another, opening up to the pain or anxiety means opening, and tolerance just feels too cold for there to be an opening for my protective selves. (For example, I’m not going to get all vulnerable about my gender experience if someone is just tolerant of trans folks, and if that someone was me then I never would have come out to myself.)
The way I feel it, we are within our dissociation, within our fighters and runners. When we sit with the impulse to dissociate or fight, flee or fawn, we sit with the ones that chose to dissociate, to be extra vigilant, to escape, and those ones have been shamed and punished. They did the best they could. They probably saved our lives. They don’t want to be tolerated. They want to be appreciated for doing the best they could to protect the self, for working so crazy hard for us. So what should we call it? Probably it’s an image that changes with the tides and the seasons, a music score in constant development. For me, it is home, even as home changes like Howl’s Moving Castle. The word home feels deep inside me and yet also is much older, deeper, and wider than me at the same time. It takes all that older, deeper, and wider to be with all the pain that runs through us. Which is the point of another essay or essays others have written. It’s not a window, it’s not about tolerance and it’s not really individual. We share this trauma and this aliveness like we do the air. Some people just have worse air because we put the trauma we pretend isn’t ours, all of ours, in their backyard and think we’re okay and it’s their fault or their bad luck, and that just makes our trauma worse. But that’s another essay.
(Photo by Andrew Davis, https://andrewdavis.foliohd.com/)