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Acting out of Control: The Window of Tolerance and EMDR Therapy

Calvin’s reaction* may look familiar to some of us. For others, perhaps he would be more relatable if he shut down, ran away, or expressed a feeling of dread or even of feeling trapped. Regardless, we have all had experiences in which our reactions felt beyond our control. And, in hindsight, these reactions probably appeared not only to be extreme in response to the actual situation but also ultimately not helpful in creating the outcome we had hoped for. So, then, why do we react this way?

Though parts of our brains are thoughtful and calculating, other parts are more primitive, and these parts are often responsible for keeping us out of danger (and, therefore, alive). When these parts of the brain perceive danger, they go into a trauma response, and our levels of arousal rise into hyperarousal to activate our Fight, Flight, and Freeze responses:

Fight – sometimes a good offense is the best defense. One of our first lines of defense is to attack, as Calvin does with the model plane. Fight responses may look very active, with a desire to break or throw things, or they may be more subtle, such as making fists with our hands or tensing our jaws and grinding our teeth.

Flight – when fighting is not an option, we tend to want to get as far away from the danger as possible. We might imagine zebras sprinting away from a lion (and certainly, if we are truly in danger, it makes sense to physically run away from the danger). However, a flight response can be as simple as a desire to leave a room, restlessly moving our feet or legs, or a feeling of being trapped.

Freeze – when both fight and flight are not possible, we can freeze. Think about the way you may have held your body when you ever played hide-and-seek as a child: muscles held tight all over your body, trying not to breathe. Freeze can also show up as a feeling of being stuck or numb, both in our bodies or thoughts.

Alternatively, our levels of arousal may actually fall into another trauma response: collapse. In this state of hypoarousal, our level of arousal falls into a depressed state, which may be experienced as yawning, extreme fatigue, and drowsiness (in the animal world, this is the ‘playing dead’ response to a dangerous situation).

When we are in these types of responses, it can often feel as though our reactions are beyond our control.

The window of tolerance & EMDR Therapy

Anytime you experience one or more of these types of reactions, your body and mind are responding outside of their window of tolerance.** While the primitive parts of our brain are designed to keep us safe, they can often respond when there is no true danger – at least not a danger that threatens our lives. In times when there is no true danger, the more developed parts of our brain are designed regulate the primitive parts. They can say, “This is not dangerous,” and override the Fight, Flight, Freeze and Collapse responses. When this happens, we stay in an optimal state of arousal, remain in the window of tolerance, and are able to respond to the situation in ways that are more healthy and productive.

This ability to self-regulate varies from person to person, with some individuals exhibiting larger windows of tolerance than others. However, therapy can help those who often find themselves in Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Collapse grow their windows of tolerance. EMDR Therapy supports clients in two ways:

  • First, EMDR Therapy helps clients develop their internal resources, which strengthens their ability to regulate the more primitive parts of the brain, shutting down trauma responses.

  • Second, EMDR Therapy supports clients in processing old, disturbing memories that may be contributing to trauma responses to new experiences that the brain associates with the old memories.

For more information on EMDR Therapy, click here, and please contact me if you would like to discuss how EMDR Therapy can help you strengthen your ability to avoid unnecessary Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Collapse responses.

*Calvin & Hobbes comic strip by Bill Waterson can be found here.

**For a more in depth look at the Window of Tolerance, see Dan Siegel’s The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience or any of his more recent books.

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