Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

2. Hypoarousal—located below the “window.” This is a state of checking out or “going away.” On the surface, it looks like low energy or very little arousal. For some people, Hypoarousal can lead to out of body experiences in which they report that their consciousness leaves their body and "floats" above an overwhelming experience--watching events unfold from a safer, less painful vantage point. The survival response associated with hypoarousal is Submit. This is a “passive” survival response because it's basically a mental and physical  “collapse” that happens in an attempt to avoid intense pain. In the animal world, Submit is also known as "playing dead." The diagram below illustrates a “spectrum” of behaviors and emotions that are clear indications of hypoarousal:

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3. Bi-phasic—some people do a combination of hyper and hypoarousal. This is very common amongst individuals who’ve spent significant time in prison. They may have a natural inclination to move toward hyperarousal, but because high levels of arousal are dangerous and potentially fatal in prison, they’ve learned to clamp down on their arousal level and automatically transition into a state of hypoarousal. The survival response most closely associated with bi-phasic arousal is Freeze.

Submit and Freeze can look very similar on the outside, but the internal experience is very different. For submit, there’s a “deadening” or collapse that happens internally. Freeze, on the other hand, feels highly active on the inside—with lots of adrenaline and energy. “A deer in the headlight” response is a good example of how Freeze might look and feel.

All of us have a dominant arousal level that we automatically gravitate toward when we get triggered. It’s important to identify where we go because this is what helps us determine which treatment strategies will be most effective. People who tend to gravitate toward hyperarousal need tools to bring their arousal level down. This can include mindfulness practices like meditation, breathing exercises and Yoga. People who are more prone to hypoarousal need tools to increase their energy level. This can include things like exercise and active meditation practices.

Please feel free to contact me hereif you have questions or if you’d like to schedule a free 30-minute initial consultation.

Copyright © 2020, Dario Martinez. All rights reserved.

Communication and Relationships:

Managing Triggers with the Window of Tolerance

By Dario Martinez

Have you ever lost control of your emotions or behavior during a conflict with someone? Perhaps you said something that you later regretted? Or maybe you did something that later caused you to feel guilt, embarrassment or even shame? Does your response to the behavior of people around you ever feel like it's way out of proportion to what’s actually happening? Perhaps you blow up in rage or get really anxious?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your behavior and reactions in these moments were most likely the byproducts of a “triggered state.”  By definition, triggers cause us to lose control of our thoughts, reactions and behavior. Unless we learn how to manage them, triggers automatically lead to the following chain reaction:

  • Rational thinking goes offline.
  • Brain is hijacked by one of the five automatic survival responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Submit, or Cry for help.
  • Emotions and behavior are completely dominated by survival needs.

This is why people frequently say things they don’t mean (Fight response) or completely shut down (Submit response) during arguments with loved ones. When people in romantic relationships come to therapy to work on “Communication Issues,” this frequently indicates that one or all of the people involved in the relationship are so triggered by each other’s behavior that they’re unable to hear each other—let alone clearly express what they’re feeling.

Needless to say, learning how to identify and manage triggers is vitally important to the development healthy relationships. To read more about triggers, please click here.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy provides a useful tool called The Window Of Tolerance to help us identify when we’ve entered a triggered state:

The grey area in the center of the diagram represents a non-triggered state. This is the “window” of experience that we can tolerate without getting triggered. It’s also known as “the optimal arousal zone.” Some of us have really wide windows, while others have windows that are very narrow.

We know that we’re in our “window” when we have complete control over our thoughts, emotions and behavior.  The minute we start to feel “foggy,” overly emotional and/or cut off from our capacity to think clearly—something has probably triggered us and we’re outside of our “optimal arousal zone.”

We can identify when we’ve entered a triggered state by learning how to monitor our “arousal level.” There are three distinct levels of arousal that indicate someone is triggered:

1. Hyperarousal—located above the grey “window” in the diagram. This is a state of high agitation, emotion and energy. If the trigger is strong enough, people in states of hyperarousal can automatically slip into one of the three “active” survival responses: Fight, Flight or Cry for Help. The diagram below illustrates a “spectrum” of behaviors and emotions that are clear indications of hyperarousal:

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Copyright © 2017, Dario Martinez. All rights reserved.