Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Self-Regulation, and the Window of Tolerance

CPTSD Foundation
5 min readNov 6, 2023

One of the worst symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) must be the inability to experience and maintain self-regulation. This article will focus on what self-regulation is and how to obtain it. The window of tolerance will also be discussed to help readers determine how to function well and thrive.

CPTSD is a chronic condition brought on by exposure to multiple traumatic events.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is not the same as PTSD, which can occur after exposure to one traumatic event, although the DSM-5-TR lists them together.

Typically forming in early childhood as a result of severe and repeated abuse and occurring in adults, complex post-traumatic stress disorder causes, among other things, a lack of self-regulation.

Adult survivors with CPTSD experience many symptoms, including:

  • Amnesia
  • Alienation
  • Re-victimization
  • Chronic mistrust
  • Anxiety
  • Dissociation
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Body memories
  • Shame
  • Volatile emotions
  • Severe depression

There are more symptoms, but they are too many to list here; however, they are all life-altering and can lead to self-harm.

Many people with CPTSD have a horrible time with their window of tolerance as they struggle to understand why they behave the way they do.

A Definition of Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is managing your energy, feelings, thoughts, and actions effectively. Self-regulation is crucial for our well-being, interpersonal interactions, and educational growth. Self-regulation also assists us in problem-solving.

We must be aware of ourselves, comprehend our emotions, handle most situations without stress, get along with others well, and maintain focus to develop self-regulation.

However, what happens if we throw CPTSD into the mix? Survivors face emotions they do not want and behaviors they do not understand. They may fly off the handle or have angry outbursts and not know where these behaviors originated.

Self-regulation is challenging for those with complex post-traumatic stress disorder as their brains have been rewired to respond to any perceived threat with the fight or flight response.

People who live with the condition also have a shallow window of tolerance.

What is the Window of Tolerance?

First coined by renowned psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, MD, the window of tolerance describes the optimal emotional zone our brains inhabit to function well and allow us to thrive.

On either side of our optimal zone, there are two other zones known as the hyper-arousal zone and the hypo-arousal zone, each with its own attributes and characteristics.

The optimal arousal zone. The optimal zone comprises a sense of being grounded, openness, presence, curiosity, an ability to allow for emotional regulation, and a capacity to tolerate daily stressors. Optimal arousal allows us to feel good, and when we feel good, we are more equipped to handle situations in an adult manner.

If your window of tolerance is obscured and you are the victim of internal or external stressors, you might move beyond your window of tolerance.

The hyperarousal zone. Hyperarousal describes an emotional state with high energy, panic, anxiety, overwhelm, and an exaggerated startle response. Being hyperaroused causes you to react to your impulses with increasing anger and aggression. The hyperaroused state often leads to difficulty in calmly processing information and reasoning. Also, when in a hyperaroused state, you find it challenging to focus on what you are doing as you are on a heightened alert that can be overwhelming.

The hypoarousal zone. In contrast with hyperarousal, hypoarousal is a mental state characterized by numbness, depression, withdrawal, shutting down, shame, disconnection, and a flat affect. In hypoarousal, you are typically affected by decreased physiological and mental activity.

In the hypoarousal zone, one might show signs such as slowed movements, lack of responsiveness to what is happening around them, and reduced muscle tone. Sometimes, people experience shallow and slow breathing. They may also stare into space (dissociate) when hypoaroused.

Ideally, a person would remain in the optimal zone and avoid becoming hyper or hypoaroused.

How to Widen and Maintain Your Window of Tolerance

Everyone occasionally falls outside of the window of tolerance and beyond the ability to obtain emotional regulation.

The objective is not only to broaden our tolerance window but also to learn to rebound and be resilient when faced with challenging situations. Building our window of tolerance means practicing mindfulness, building social connections, and improving how we react when stressed.

Some key things to do to help with emotional self-regulation are below. Please, don’t brush these things off, as they are critical to achieving self-regulation.

  • Eat healthy food
  • Get regular exercise
  • Get enough restful sleep
  • Seek out a mental health professional for support
  • Work to develop resilience

These vital components of self-regulation can be combined with grounding practices, deep breathing, meditation, and movement.

One last tool you can use to build your window of tolerance and control your behavior is to laugh. Laughter releases dopamine, which is a feel-good chemical your brain uses to make you want to repeat behaviors. You can always find something to laugh about; if not, devote time to reading comic books or watching a funny movie or TV series.

Ending Our Time Together

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder leads to problems with self-regulation, including depression. Figuratively speaking, depression tends to close a person into a seemingly inescapable abyss.

I am a survivor of childhood abuse that lasted for fifteen years. As a result, I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder. CPTSD has altered my life in many ways. For one, I haven’t been in a relationship since 2000 and have no interest in being in one either. I have a severe lack of trust and fear of reaching out to others. My self-regulation problem isn’t loud outbursts of anger. On the contrary, my behaviors differ in that I tend to hold everything inside and tell no one that I am triggered. This lack of trust in other people has cornered me and has become a trigger itself.

Considering my own experiences, I know full well that living life beyond the window of tolerance makes someone a victim of their own emotions. Unable to self-regulate, many survivors cannot increase their tolerance window without intentionally working on it. To work toward having a more significant window of tolerance, most survivors will require the help of a mental health professional.

I hope this article has brought you the information that you need.

“If you have a dream, don’t just sit there. Gather courage to believe that you can succeed and leave no stone unturned to make it a reality.” — Dr. Roopleen

“She conquered her demons and wore her scars like wings.” — Atticus Poetry

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.