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Trauma Tolerance


Many clients who’ve suffered dysfunctional childhoods either over or under respond to trauma. Easily stressed by typical family and work problems, when there’s major mayhem or abuse in their lives, they either don’t recognize it or act as if nothing’s wrong. The goal is to have a healthy window of tolerance for stress and stressors.

Over-reacting to situations only causes more stress. For example, when you need to keep calling repeatedly to get information from a bank or doctor’s office, this is simply how life works. Bureaucracy takes time as well as a toll on us. But if you quickly get frustrated, you can make the situation worse by being verbally abusive or giving up on finding out information that’s crucial to your well-being. Alternately, when you let your Mom or Dad scream at your children for no good reason and make excuses for their abuse, you’re under-reacting which will cause problems down the road for your kids.

Here's an example. Cassandra, a client who comes from a highly dysfunctional family, has a short fuse while also priding herself on giving others leeway. If I need to take a phone call during a session (which is a rare occurrence), she fidgets and I can see her internally huffing and puffing and then we spend the rest of the session talking about her feeling how unimportant she is to me. As the youngest of seven children growing up in a poverty-level household, I totally understand her sensitivity to neglect, and we talk about how she can self-soothe rather than get sucked into traumatic memories.

Cassandra’s current family life is also chaotic. She has five children from two partners and her current husband has worked only on and off during their six years of marriage because of his drinking. She tries to be a good mother but has little idea how to discipline her children other than yelling at them or giving in to them. When we do tele-therapy sessions, they constantly interrupt for things they could do themselves or ask their siblings for help with. It is, quite honestly, a challenge to work with her, but she’s not the least fazed by their interruptions which she sees as not letting them struggle on their own as she did. Her tolerance for their behavior and her husband’s drinking and losing jobs and their living in general pandemonium is well above a healthy level.

Think about your window for tolerance of stress and inappropriate behavior. Do you tune right into the slightest slight and turn out major turmoil? Do you have a low boiling point but a high threshold for tolerating abuse or neglect? If so, it’s time to get professional help to get yourself into better balance which will help decrease stress eating.