Have you ever wondered how trauma may be affecting your relationship to food and body? The window of tolerance is a term to explain how we shift from states of arousal based on our ability to tolerate and integrate emotions, information and experience, If you struggle with food and body, it is likely that you find it difficult to tolerate emotions and sensations within the body. You turn to food, or away from it to distract you from having to feel the discomfort of a particular situation or emotion in your life. Engaging with overeating, binge eating, eating disorder behaviours, excessive exercise, toxic body talk serve as a very temporary way of navigating around having to feel what you feel within the body. This, like any other coping strategy is a survival response learned at some point in our lives to help us feel safe. These behaviours began to arise to protect us when we didn't feel safe.
The Window of Tolerance is the state of 'arousal' or stimulation in which we can function, feel safe and thrive in everyday life.
When we exist within this window, we are more resourced to effectively respond to everyday stressors that arise
This model has primarily been developed for trauma, which we have all faced in some way or another; physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, ancestrally, racially and/or collectively.
Within this model there are three important states:
Your fight or flight response activates when a perceived threat or danger arises.
You might start to feel anxious, angry, out of control, and overwhelmed.
You might feel you want to fight or run away. Thoughts become chaotic, rushed and black and white.
You may start to feel spacy, zoned out, numb, frozen in time.
You check out.
You freeze or fawn.
You become immobile.
Your body shuts down and becomes sluggish.
You don't choose either of these states, but your primal body literally takes over your physical responses.
In these states, your body is trying to protect you.
In both scenarios, you become completely disconnected and disembodied.
When we talk about tools to regulate, it is to help you expand your window of tolerance, as well as help to bring you back from either hyper or hypo-arousal when it is safe to do so.
Animals are adept at diffusing physical and emotional stress through shaking and trembling but us humans, have disconnected from this.
Instead, humans store the changes in the energy and frequency created by a traumatic event in the body, and they remain unprocessed.
These unprocessed and blocked emotions feed into the size and flexibility of our WoT.
When something triggers us to move out of our window of tolerance, we stimulate our autonomic nervous system which results in us shifting into either our sympathetic or para-sympathetic nervous system.
What does this have to do with my eating habits?
When we are in these states, we feel uncomfortable, and we reach and find ways to regulate ourselves - e.g. with food.
Food is nourishment. It is survival and we also associate it with being soothed and as being in relationship and connection with, as babies, children, and adults.
We might also turn away from food and restrict as a way of trying to control everything that is happening externally.
If we control food, control our body weight and shape, we tend to believe that everything will be ok.
When food or thinking about our body takes over all our thoughts, we zone in and pre-occupied so that we don't have to deal with the feelings of fear or discomfort.
Is one state linked to restricting and one linked to bingeing or overeating?
I believe this question is personalised to everyone.
We will have nuanced when it comes to hyper and hypo arousal e.g. hyper (anxious, feeling a rush, inability to think clearly) and hypo (feeling numb and immobile).
However, what is more apparent is the differences in types of behaviours that lead off the back of these sates. These could be influenced by genetics, family history behaviour and family origin, by environmental and cultural factors such as where you live, your ethnicity and religion, by socio-economic factors such as you are financial situation, and through your own personal experience, trauma, and influences from your friends’ groups and the media.
These are all determines of why some of us may choose food instead of other coping strategies and numbing techniques such as the use of drugs and alcohol, or other less *physically* harmful behaviours like binge watching tv shows, gaming, and social media, however all of these provide a similar effect – checking out of life and can easily turn into obsessions. Many *healthy* and *positive* behaviours also fit in to this category that often goes un-noticed because it is perceived by many as a good thing, like exercise, beauty products and surgery.
When you are hyper aroused, you may use food to help relax the body, as eating forces the body to move into a more sympathetic nervous system state. However, it may be a driver of restriction also, where people use it as a bass to stop and restrict food, instead using stimulants and keeping busy to fight off hunger, which may ultimately lead to bingeing behaviour later.
When you are hypo aroused, you may use food to comfort you and bring you back to a memory of *happier* times by having your favourite foods. Because you are often still checked out this can turn in to overeating and bingeing because you are disconnected from the food you're eating and fullness cues in the body. On the other hand, you may feel more comfortable being numb and therefore use food restriction to feel even more numb. Usually, people with sever food restriction are often disengaged with other people and life and present as life-less.
How do we get back into the Window of Tolerance?
There are many different ways to shift ourselves back into the window of tolerance, as well as expand it so that we can become more resourced in challenging situations which may have previously creates a sense of threat and fear.
It is fairly normal in any given day to move between these states of arousal. In an ideal world, it would be great to stay within the ‘tipping-points’ of full hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, however the shifts from hyper to hypo can be very informative when we witness it as it often helps us to understand what people, places, situations, experiences create discomfort for us, which can then help us decode as to why and we can learn to overcome them or move away from them in our life if they are not serving our wellbeing.
In a nutshell it is a great when we become aware and simply notice, as a tool to get to understand ourselves, and our boundaries and from there, we can work on personal growth and evolve.
Here are some regulating practices that I often use with my clients within my 121 and group coaching sessions
Tuning in to sensations – what you can see, hear, smell, taste, the temperature of the room or the body and then move in and out of focus – focus on something small, and then expand the awareness then refocus back in. Moving between states can help you come back into the present by noticing how moment to moment, things changes, emotions feelings and sensations change and it can help us to bring more awareness into what we can notice
Co-regulating with others, animals, or nature
Safe and sacred place imagery – thinking of a safe or sacred place or imagining this where there is peace and safety
Embodiment practices such as: Yoga, dncing and TRE exercises like shaking
When we become aware, we don’t just notice how external stimuli can shift us, but we can become aware of how our own behaviours and actions also affect us.
For example, think about these examples of a morning routine:
1. do you wake up, switch on the news, make a coffee and scroll on social media?
2. Or do you drink a glass of water, take to your journal and practice yoga or take the dog for a walk and listen to the birds?
Feel in to how your body responds to each of those examples.
In the former, my body feels tenses, alert and constricted.
In the latter, my body feels calm, peaceful and soft.
Now I invite you to think about these examples with food and notice what changes within your body.
1. You don’t know what to eat to sustain and nourish you – you are always on the run and grabbing something to go, you often restrict your food during the day because you desperately want to lose weight
2. You love food! You look forward to each meal, to cooking and creating something delicious to share with friends and family. You eat what you want, when you want, but usually this involves food that is fresh and packed full of nutrients and is balanced, which means you don’t ever feel hungry, and you always feel satisfied.
Now imagine who you would be if that was you in example 2.
What would you wear?
What job would you have?
Where would you live?
What would you do in the evenings or at the weekend?
Where would you go on holiday?
This vision is available to you when you heal, your relationship to food and body. When you invest yourself into finding peace with food and body. When you make time to practice regulation tools so that you expand, your window of tolerance. When you befriend, you're body and can understand the sensations? When you connect to your intuitive wisdom that helps to guide you towards what feels good and what doesn’t.
My concluding comments
Take some time to sit with this and ask yourself the following question. Get our you're journal and let the wisdom flow…
Where do I commonly feel hyper aroused? What does it feel like to me? How have I been regulating myself in these situations?
Where do I feel hypo aroused? What does it feel like to me? How have I been regulating myself in these situations?
When do I feel most regulated? How do I know? What does it feel like?
How are these states of hyper and hypo arousal affecting my life? Your ability to show up at work and in my creative endeavour, interests and hobbies. How does it affect my relationships? How does it affect the way I feel about myself?
If I was able to expand my window of tolerance, how would that effect my life?
How can I make small shifts in my day and with some regulation practices to help you expand your window of tolerance and bring me back in to it when things get tough?
If any of this made sense to you, and struck a chord, then please please reach out.
Until next time loves x