Portions of a draft excerpt from Trauma-Informed Interactions with Horses: A Somatic and Attachment Framework for Equine Professionals (Schlote, in press, Routledge).
The Window of Tolerance and “Faux” Window
The window of tolerance is a map drawn from interpersonal neurobiology that was originally described by Siegel (2010), that has been integrated into a number of different trauma treatment approaches for humans, and that is being promoted by an increasing number of equine professionals (horse trainers, riding instructors, etc.) and equine interaction professionals (equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning) as a map to help make sense of horse behaviour and horse-human interactions, and to guide the selection of interventions. Knowing where an organism is at in terms of their window of tolerance is useful in identifying how best to proceed, respond, or intervene, since what is possible or helpful differs depending on whether one is inside or outside their window, and to what degree.
[…] When an organism is operating within its window of tolerance (also known as the resilient zone), there is a relatively easy ebb and flow between the gas pedal (the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for arousal of various kinds) and the brakes (the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for slowing down).
Within the window of tolerance, a number of things are more accessible:
- Rest, play, and safe relational interactions
- Calm alertness (or rational vigilance), curiosity, and exploratory orienting
- Optimal physical health
- Sympathetic arousal (as opposed to survival activation)
- Executive functioning is more easily available
- Present-moment awareness
- Attunement, connection, and empathy
- A sense of stability, well-being, and aliveness
Within the window of tolerance, an organism has more capacity to regulate organically (i.e., independently of any voluntary or external intervention), and voluntary self-regulation strategies (such as grounding, centering, breathing techniques, movement practices, and other techniques for humans, or the “relax button” or lowering the head strategies for horses) are usually more effective and easier to access. Other top-down methods are also typically more effective from within the window of tolerance (as opposed to outside of it).
As a result of chronic stress, adverse conditions, and trauma, the nervous system can begin to operate outside its window of tolerance. Nervous system dysregulation refers to when an organism has difficulty organically or voluntarily modulating its emotional and physiological state, often being caught in or fluctuating between polar extremes
Hyperarousal refers to acute or chronic states of over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system, where an organism finds itself in “survival mode”. Hypoarousal, on the other hand, refers to acute or chronic states of over-activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, where an organism finds itself in “shutdown” in response to feeling overwhelmed and unable to mobilize an effective or successful survival response. When an organism is outside of its window of tolerance, its capacity to be fully present, connected, and regulated is compromised.
What about blended states?
At first glance, the window of tolerance appears relatively foolproof as a map and applicable to understanding both equine and human behaviour. However, due to its two-dimensional rendering with the sympathetic nervous system on one side and the parasympathetic system on the other side, the window of tolerance does not allow an easy rendering of blended autonomic states (cue Porges’ polyvagal theory) that feature aspects of both systems in play at the same time. For instance, the nervous system state described colloquially as “freeze” is thought to feature aspects of the autonomic and parasympathetic branches operating in concert, as in the expression “one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes at the same time”. As a result, different versions of the window of tolerance place “freeze” in hyperarousal (given the presence of autonomic activation), while other versions place it in hypoarousal (given the presence of parasympathetic shutdown).
My own practice has shifted from placing “freeze” in hypoarousal beneath the x-axis to placing it in hyperarousal above the x-axis, to distinguish it from “fold” (collapse), which does not have much or any sympathetic involvement whatsoever and more neatly fits with the description of hypoarousal. However, this is simply a matter of preference, and there is no universal convention about where “freeze” should be placed within the window of tolerance. This means that there are different versions in existence, which can create confusion even if neither is technically incorrect.
A similar issue occurs with regards to other blended states, such as when appeasement is used to attempt to co-regulate the source of potential danger in order to defuse tension and increase safety. Appeasement also includes some parasympathetic modulation of either sympathetic arousal or activation, meaning a different kind of brakes is on at the same time as the gas pedal. Appeasement as a survival response does not fit neatly into the window of tolerance model, and could fall either within the window or in hyper-arousal. Hypo-arousal is an unlikely location for appeasement, which assumes a certain amount of social engagement is available, which is not the case in shutdown.
The faux window
A recent adaptation to the original model has highlighted another of its key limitations. Kain and Terrell (2018) describe a phenomenon known as the faux (or false) window of tolerance: “The model of the faux window provides a representation of what occurs when someone is chronically outside their window of tolerance, and has developed defensive accommodations [management strategies] that effectively provide them with the experience of being within their optimal arousal zone – when, in fact, they are operating chronically outside of that zone” (p. 132).
In essence, the faux window is when an organism turns to a variety of behaviours in an attempt to approximate regulation, which give the impression that it is in its window of tolerance (or that it has a wide window) when in reality it is not (or does not). It is easy to mistake someone who is operating outside of the window in the faux window for someone who is within the window of tolerance. For instance, it can be easy to miss how a horse or a human may be dissociating or overriding in order to cope and mistakenly assume that everything is fine. Clients with patterns of chronic workaholism or perfectionism, just like stoic or submissive equines, can fool us into thinking they are either very capable or very calm, when they are actually at risk of exploding or collapsing. This, of course, does occur regularly, with sometimes disastrous results. An over-functioning nervous system, whether human or equine, is easy to miss, given how much Western society values productivity and disconnection from inner awareness of nuanced state shifts in ourselves and others.
In the illustration above, management strategies (or defensive accommodations) refer to the various methods different species use to cope with internal and external demands (see Chapter 1). These protective or coping mechanisms serve to approximate regulation as a compensation in systemic, environmental, and relational situations that feel uncomfortable, unsafe, overwhelming, painful, confusing, abusive, neglectful, or chaotic (or that are reminiscent of past situations when this was the case). They are not pathological vices, bad habits, or due to a lack of willpower; rather, these behaviours are how an organism adapted or adjusted to changing circumstances. The compelling nature or urgency with which these behaviours sometimes occur (or when they are prevented from occurring) hints at the dysregulating or disorganized survival energy (often fear or anxiety) that are driving them. They also typically reflect the presence of early deprivation or lack of co-regulation, safe haven conditions, and secure base relationality.
For instance, a nervous system that is used to being in hyper-arousal might use particular strategies to bring themselves down out of that state, which gives the impression they are back in their window of tolerance when in reality they are in their faux window (still hyper-aroused, only less so). The opposite is also true; a nervous system that is used to being in hypo-arousal will use particular strategies to lift themselves up out that state, which again gives the impression that they are in their window of tolerance but are in fact in their faux window (still hypo-aroused, only less so). The faux window is incredibly convincing and suggests that a particular organism has a wider window of tolerance or more resilience than it actually has, which has survival value on multiple levels.
Donkeys, for instance, evolved in small bands on terrain that could not sustain large herds, so to make up for the lack of safety in numbers that would allow an individual to merge and hide in the collective they adapted by masking signs of pain or injury (Svendsen, 2009; The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada, n.d.). Donkeys are often thought to have a wider window of tolerance, surviving hardships that a horse would die from; however, it may be that donkeys simply have a well-developed faux window management strategy, since whatever illness or injury they are masking eventually comes to the fore and is often too advanced to recover from. As with humans, this requires the ability to track subtle shifts in facial expression, posture, and movement that provide clues there is more going on beneath the overriding.
One of the key takeaways from the faux window model is that even strategies that are seen as potentially beneficial (and routinely taught to clients and students in support of their self-regulation, such as controlled breathing, grounding, and so on) can become problematic when said techniques simply perpetuate a pattern of hyper- or hypo-arousal, operating outside the true window of tolerance. For instance, someone who has learned to manipulate their breathing as a management strategy may believe that they’ve successfully healed from whatever required the adoption of that strategy in the first place. However, if the breathing strategy was not employed, and the feelings, sensations, beliefs or memories come rushing to the surface in the absence of the strategy, this would be a tell-tale sign that the individual was still managing as opposed to recovered. When things fall apart if a strategy is not available, or if in preventing one strategy another one simply takes its place (such as when one addiction is replaced with another), these are signs that one might be operating in their faux window.
Alternatively, certain strategies may be useful but be ineffective if attempted at the wrong time, depending on the state of the nervous system and what survival energy is being held in the body. An example of this in horses is getting the animal to lower its head in an attempt at helping it to calm down and relax when the horse’s state is far beyond the range where this technique might be effective (other “relaxation” cues may also reinforce overriding as opposed to being a sign of true capacity being built). Another example is having a person attempt to overcome their anger by cultivating forgiveness, which usually backfires when the body is still carrying the charge of an incomplete fight response that is wanting to be worked through. Forcing forgiveness may also constitute a re-enactment of silencing and suppression for someone who has spent a lifetime of having to disregard their feelings in order to appease another who never owned their behaviour or its impacts. This is not to say that, for some, breathing strategies and forgiveness are not helpful. In some cases, they are, though not across the board. The right tool at the wrong time is still the wrong tool. For some organisms, certain tools will never be appropriate, which is valid.
Finally, for organisms that are routinely outside their window, actually being in the window can be uncomfortable, painful, or overwhelming at first. It involves coming out of over- or under-functioning into presence, calmness, connection, and aliveness, and sensing whatever one was protecting oneself from feeling in the first place. Truly being in the window of tolerance means becoming more present to what shows up when one slows down enough or rises up out of the depths to reconnect with aliveness and presence, which can be unfamiliar territory. Being calm can be a sign that one is back in the window of tolerance, but not necessarily. As I like to say, not all stillness is calm.
It is important to emphasize that learning management strategies can be an important step on the journey of healing or recovery. All organisms have management strategies; these are not wrong, bad, or a sign of failure or inadequacy. They are the mechanisms by which an organism, regardless of species, figured out how to cope within its environment. They are to be appreciated as crucial survival efforts, as opposed to criticized or shamed. They were necessary under the original conditions that existed when those strategies were adopted and may still hold some benefit today, even though those conditions may no longer be the same.
Two sides of the same coin
Like with many things in life, trauma is marked by polarizations. Some organisms with a history of trauma present with high levels of distress and dysfunction, having difficulty with keeping things together and being functional. However, others fall on the other side of the spectrum, overcompensating with patterns of overriding and over-functioning. These individuals often struggle just as much inside but, unlike their counter-parts, they often remain unseen (like the donkey) and underserviced by a health system that prioritizes diagnoses and distress (though, of course, the trauma that may be present in both categories is missed either way). I have seen a similar number of people from both camps in my practice, and the challenges each of them face are equally problematic and deserving of support.
I myself identify as one of the “over-functioners”, and there is a deep burden of having to live up to the façade of performance and achievement whilst masking the turmoil underneath, coupled with shame when you dare allow yourself to be human from time to time – a vulnerability that is judged or not allowed either within oneself or by others who have come to expect your over-functioning to absolve them of having to step up to the plate themselves. Some people can’t tolerate when an over-functioner releases themselves from being and doing everything for everyone, because others rely on it for their own sense of security and stability. If the over-functioner chooses to no longer accept this burden (such as by saying no, setting boundaries, or prioritizing themselves in other ways), all hell can break loose for those around them who scramble to force the over-functioner back into position… an example of the theme of “my comfort relies on your discomfort,” which often emerges in horse-human interactions as well. This pattern comes with a pretty high cost to not only the individual but to the health of the relationships involved.Workaholism and perfectionism are examples of “addictions” that tend to be prized and reinforced by Western society.
Interestingly, a version of perfectionism does come with its own diagnostic category: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD, not to be confused with the more commonly-known OCD). But the stigma associated with OCPD is far less intense and shame-inducing than the stigma of substance abuse disorder: being called a perfectionist can be a point of pride – it can be reinforcing to be seen as working hard and making an effort, and it can be an effective way at preventing potential criticism, rejection, or abandonment. Being called an “addict” is less appealing, due to the connotations of being seen as deadbeat who has no morals or self-control who just wants to milk the system. Neither perspective is true, of course; these are just the stories or narratives that we have learned to attach to specific behaviours in the absence of understanding their underlying aetiology.I describe this unjust dichotomy as “coping privilege”, where by virtue of various pre-disposing factors, our ways of adapting to adverse circumstances either lead to greater difficulty and stigma within capitalist society or they do not. Whether or not someone develops PTSD, addictions, OCPD, or any other “diagnosis” (or winds up quitting school or getting a PhD, ends up on the street or in a stable home, is seen as an upstanding member of society or is incarcerated, etc.) has more to do with factors that were beyond one’s control than not.
The kinds of adversity they endured, the quality of social support available to them, genetic and intergenerational factors, nervous system and attachment patterning, personality and temperament, their levels of distress tolerance, their internal resources and emotional skills, their beliefs and expectations, what additional layers of identity or oppression-based trauma are present, their socio-economic status, the state of the economy and systemic barriers that are in play, and whether or not adversity occurred during sensitive or critical periods of development where it can have more of a significant impact are all pieces of this very complex puzzle.
It is humbling to realize that there is often only a very thin line between a super-achiever and an under-achiever, and that which category one falls into is not necessarily a sign of having deserved or earned it. I am all too aware that I could just have easily wound up in a different category had any of these and other factors in my life been altered even slightly. As early Roman playwright and former enslaved person, Terrence, so eloquently stated: “I am human, I consider nothing that is human to be alien or foreign to me.” This acceptance of our common humanity (and mammaliomorphism) and that we are sometimes but one tiny step away from a totally different reality (regardless of direction) is a foundational cornerstone to a trauma-informed existence.
So, who has the greater coping privilege? The super-achiever or the under-achiever? The person with OCPD with a successful career or the person with a substance abuse disorder who is struggling to find housing? The person who is meeting or exceeding capitalist society’s expectations or the person who cannot seem to get it together? The person who falls apart but may have easier access to services, or the person who appears to be on top of the world but is dismissed by therapists as doing fine because the therapists fell for the convincing over-functioning pattern? It all depends on whose shoes you are wearing at any given point. And, of course, the distinctions I make here are somewhat arbitrary as well; one can have OCPD and a substance addiction. One can have a graduate degree and wind up in a psychiatric hospital. One can be under-functioning and still fall under the radar like the over-functioner or even mistreated if the underlying trauma is not seen for what it is. But the point remains that all organisms can experience trauma and adversity of varying kinds, that no one kind is worse or more deserving than another, and that unaddressed coping privilege and the judgments and us vs. them divisions it can create are its own form of injustice and trauma.
This brings us back around to the equid family. Which equines may be over-functioning and therefore prized by society because of what the animal can do to benefit people (think of donkeys and racing horses as examples)? Which ones may be under-functioning and deemed undesirable (think of the “dirty horses” with “stable vices”)? How does coping privilege play out in regards to animals that are having to adapt to an anthropocentric world? What do you notice happens inside your body as you sit with this entire line of thinking?
Benefits of the model
Coming back to the idea of maps: Resilience is more than just a set of strategies that one implements when an organism is too activated or shut down to return to the window of tolerance, which can provide temporary relief but should not be equated with inner capacity, resolution or release. Management strategies are complex and can occur both within the window of tolerance and outside of it, whether in ordinary hyper- or hypoarousal or in their associated faux windows.
This does not mean that the original window of tolerance is no longer useful, but rather that there is more than meets the eye. The original window of tolerance has benefit provided that it is understood as a map and not the terrain. There is a difference between finding the window again and growing the window; one is not necessarily more valuable than the other, they are simply different intentions. The original window of tolerance may be more applicable to the former than the latter, provided of course that there is not a faux window at play that is giving a rather convincing impression of having a wider range of capacity than in actual reality.