In this series of posts, we are exploring the way in which betrayal creates traumatic responses that impact our body, brains and minds. We are bringing together our understanding of our threat response systems and our attachment systems and the way these two systems interweave to create the behaviors and reactions that we experience after betrayal. To do this we are looking at five building blocks that all weave together and impact each other. In last week’s post we looked at building block number one where we defined trauma and building block number two regarding affect and the brain, body, mind connection. This week we are going to look at building blocks three and four.
Building Block #3: Our Threat Response System
Our Amygdala is connected to our bodies through our ANS and is in charge of how we respond to the loss of safety. The ANS has two branches and both branches are involved in different ways in how we regulate ourselves throughout the day.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the branch that amps up in response to threat and danger. It connects from our brains, down through our spinal cord and out to the different organs in our bodies. When activated, the sympathetic branch causes blood to rush to our organs, our hearts to pound, our sweat glands to activate and adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones to pump through us. This part of the system sends us into a hyper-aroused or hypervigilant affective state as our body prepares to either fight the threat or flee and seek safety.
The other branch of the ANS is called the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Think of this system as your brakes. The PNS helps us to calm down, to be in a state of rest and relaxation. When our sympathetic branch gets activated and sends us into fight or flight, the parasympathetic system responds by pumping the brakes and
sending out its own set of signals and hormones to help the body to calm back down. Breathing and heart rate return to normal and the body once again enters a state of alert restfulness.
Our PNS plays one other important role in responding to threat or danger. Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory identifies the PNS as a key actor in the third common threat response: freeze. When we are unable to utilize fight or flight or when those coping responses are simply overwhelmed, we can move into a state of shutdown where we experience things like numbness, dissociation, depression, helplessness, hopelessness and feeling stuck or trapped. This is a parasympathetic response to threat.
Ideally, the state of being both at rest but aware is the well-regulated state that we want to (hope to) spend most of our time in. When we are not facing a threat or dealing with chronic stressors, the SNS and PNS interact with one another all day long in a balancing act that helps us maintain our sense of calm alertness. This state can also be thought of as our window of tolerance.
Building Block #4: Our Window of Tolerance
Author and researcher Dan Siegel first coined the term window of tolerance to define the state we are in when our nervous systems are well-regulated. When we are in our window of tolerance, we are able to access our thinking and reasoning, we are connected to our resourcefulness and are able to problem solve and make decisions. We take in information, process it and integrate it into our lives. We can meet challenges and function well.
When our sympathetic or parasympathetic systems fire in response to threat and danger we can stay within our window of tolerance and respond as long as the threat is something we can handle. Someone cutting us off in traffic may momentarily make us stressed but most of the time we can frown or say a few choice words and resume on our way without it truly disrupting us.
Other stressors or traumas, like sexual betrayal, can overwhelm our coping capacities and when that happens we are bumped out of our window of tolerance. When we leave our window of tolerance, we lose connection with our ability to think well, reason, and access our resourcefulness. Our functioning can be compromised, and we can begin to reach for ways to cope that may surprise us. Being bumped outside our window of tolerance is a neurobiological event. Our body, brain and mind all move into dysregulation.
When we are outside of our window of tolerance we are usually in a state where one branch of our ANS is dominating our experience. If our sympathetic system is more activated, we are going to experience what is called hyper-arousal (fight/flight).
When we are in a hyper-aroused affective state, we can be anxious, revved up, hyper-alert, enraged, and agitated. What comes to mind for me is a stuffed donkey toy that my old dog Zoka used to have. That toy made a HEE-HAW braying sound anytime it was nudged. I finally did open heart surgery on the donkey and took the sucker’s little sound-maker out and put it on a shelf in the living room. However, any movement in the living room — walking through the room, sitting on the couch, sitting a glass down, would set off HEE-HAWING and braying from up on the shelf. This hair-trigger responsiveness is what it is like to be in hyper-arousal. We become super sensitive to any perceived threat, constantly scanning for danger. In our restless, hypervigilant, overwrought state we are biased to interpret events negatively to protect ourselves. Any perceived threat can set us to HEE-HAWING and braying emotionally in anticipation of something that may or may not materialize but threatens us nonetheless.
Some partners experience the opposite. If our parasympathetic branch is more activated, we are going to experience what is called hypo-arousal (freeze). Instead of being revved up we are going to shut down. As the sense of danger and threat overcomes our body’s coping capacities it puts our physical system into a state of freeze to manage the overwhelm. When this happens, numbness, depression, paralysis, denial, avoidance, and dissociation shape our experience of trauma.
Each of us can alternate back and forth between these two states as well, cycling rapidly through sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. But for most of us, one of these will be the dominant response that we experience more of when we are launched outside our window of tolerance.
Next week we will look at our last building block where we will see how our threat response system and our attachment system come together and create predictable patterns of relational responses for betrayed partners.