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Why Am I So Sensitive? Neuroception Explained (Part 1)

Do you feel overly sensitive? Are you panicked one minute and tapped out the next? You may be living outside your window of tolerance.

By
Dr. Monica Johnson
4-minute read
Episode #383

Today's episode is all about neuroception and the window of tolerance. Don't worry if you've never heard these terms before! I'm going to break them down for you.

What is neuroception?

Neuroception is your nervous system's ability to scan your environment and label cues and behaviors as safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. In response to this, a level of arousal is activated that is best suited for the circumstances. Essentially, your nervous system is trying to scan your environment and promote the best adaptive response.

As listeners of this podcast know, things don't always work out the way they were intended. You can have faulty neuroception or false alarms. We may perceive neutral cues as dangerous because they remind us of traumatic experiences from the past (e.g. a certain smell, rude behavior, loud noises). As a result, our arousal can either be too high or too low based on how our body falsely perceives the danger. This can lead to problems in our daily lives and our relationships.

There are many common triggers for neurocepting danger, such as a history of physical and sexual abuse. We can have poor attachment in our early lives, with attachment figures failing to help us regulate our emotions or being the source of much of our anxiety. Important people not paying attention to us can be a trigger. Other triggers may include: people being angry with or disappointed in us, criticism, feeling pressure to excel, receiving messages that we aren’t good enough, or various types of loss (e.g. divorce, abandonment, death). Being sensitive to these triggers and having false alarms can affect our window of tolerance.

What is the window of tolerance?

The window of tolerance is the zone where we feel safe, at ease, socially engaged, and comfortable. This is the ideal place to be, but if you struggle with faulty neuroception, your window of tolerance is narrow.

Based on your neuroception responses, you may vacillate between hyperarousal and hypoarousal. They sound similar, but the response is very different!

In hyperarousal, we can feel super activated and overwhelmed. In hypoarousal, we can feel distant and disconnected. Let's get into the details about what these states look like as it's important to be able to identify which state you're in. Remember, awareness is a skill!

If you're in a state of hyperarousal, you'll notice several things. You may be easily distracted or have difficulty with concentration, racing thoughts, and intense rumination or obsessive thoughts. You may feel easily overwhelmed, distressed, anxious, panicked, or nervous. You might also feel anger, irritation, or rage, and a sense of uneasiness, discomfort, or lack of safety. In your body, you may notice that you feel restless or fidgety, wound up or tense, easily startled or jumpy, and have a hard time relaxing or sleeping. You may experience an urge to fight or flee, as these are survival responses associated with hyperarousal. Other actions associated with hyperarousal are calling for help, freezing up, and trying to appease, please, and meet the expectations of others. If you're hyperaroused on a regular basis, you may frequently feel pressured, impulsive, on guard, angry, anxious, or physically tense.

Now let's turn to hypoarousal. When it comes to your thoughts, you may notice being spaced out, feeling apathetic, and having a cloudy head. You may feel depressed, hopeless, bummed out or discouraged, disinterested, bored, disconnected, unmotivated, indifferent, numb, empty, or emotionally flat—just to name a few. In your body, you may notice that you feel sluggish, lethargic, weak, heavy, or have drowsiness throughout the day. You may experience the urge to be motionless, still, and passive. Typically, it can be hard to get yourself moving or involved in activities around you. In nature, hypoarousal is most closely associated with the "play dead" survival response. Consequently, when we're in a state of hypoarousal, we shut down and become immobile and still because we perceive that our survival is at risk and fighting back, fleeing, or getting help is impossible. If you're hypoaroused on a regular basis, you may feel chronically flat, depressed, empty, dead inside, or lethargic.

The window of tolerance represents our optimal arousal. In this state, your thoughts are clear, you have the ability to be open-minded, make decisions, and handle life’s difficulties. You will also notice that you can focus and be alert. In regards to your emotions, you have the ability to be curious, interested, engaged, and you often feel centered, safe, secure, and assured that you can trust yourself and your capabilities. In your body, you may feel at peace, relaxed, and calm. Since you are not in survival mode, you can respond to your environment appropriately rather than having a more extreme trauma reaction.

Expanding your window of tolerance

Now that you are aware of hyperarousal, hypoarousal, and the window of tolerance, it’s important to monitor what triggers you to be in each state. Does one state dominate your life? I have some folks tell me they jump around, but many find that they trend towards one or the other when it comes to hyper or hypoarousal. Once you're aware of what state you're in and your trends, you can more effectively use skills to expand your window of tolerance. If you want to learn more about expanding your window of tolerance, tune in next week and I’ll share a few ideas.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.