May 23rd, 2016
You’re talking with your partner about a long-standing disagreement. Perhaps it’s the chores and how you think you do most of them. Or it’s the frequency of sex you have. Maybe it’s your desire to have children. These conversations are difficult for you. In fact, you often find yourself getting worked up quickly. You’re heart starts pounding, your chest gets tight, you might feel a bit nauseous, and you just want to get away…or you feel the urge to attack. You don’t feel safe any longer. Your window for tolerance – your ability to cope with the stress – is closing and something needs to be done.
This response, though familiar, is also bewildering to you. You love your partner. They would never want to hurt you, even if they don’t agree with you on some topics. Why do you get so protective of yourself?
This is a common experience for many people, but especially for people who have experienced trauma – both physical and emotional – in the past. Being physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, particularly in your formative years, conditions your brain and nervous system to be on guard and to protect yourself. You become watchful, on-guard, and ready to take action. Your window for tolerating discomfort and perceived threats is compromised.
This conditioning can continue into adulthood and may show up in current relationships. When your nervous system becomes arounsed by stimuli that resemble your past traumas, your primitive brain takes over and goes into protection mode. Your window of tolerance is not opened as wide as it could be, meaning that your nervous system can only tolerate so much jarring input before you go into protect mode, no longer realizing that you are actually in a safe situation, in discussion with your partner – someone you love and know has your best interests at heart.
Trauma-informed therapy can help you learn how to open that window wider. You can learn how to better tolerate situations that bring up old conditioning. You learn how to notice the signs of when you are leaving the window of tolerance. Signs you have experienced over and over. The tightening chest. The shallow breathing. The heat in your face. Your fist tightly gripping. Your antsy legs. The impulse to attack or to run away.
By working with a therapist, you can learn learn to identify all of these signs as what they are, cope with them more effectively when they occur, and, eventually, limit how often this happens to you. It is possible to crack open the window, let more air in, and feel more safe and secure.
If you’re looking for a trauma-informed therapist in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC, feel free to contact Mike Giordano, LICSW at Mike.Giordano.MSW@gmail.com or 202-460-6384.