“Window of tolerance” is a term introduced by Dr. Dan Siegel in his book, The Developing Mind. The term is now commonly used to define and understand the zone of arousal of individuals where the brain functions normally and the body reacts healthily to outside external stimuli without signs of hyper – arousal or hypo – arousal.
People who are able to stay within their window of tolerance in their everyday lives do not need to utilize mechanisms such as withdrawal or extreme emotions when faced with potentially stressful situations. When you act within your window of tolerance, you can process the information from your environment in a calm and regulated manner without outbursts of emotions or the sudden need to shut down and isolate yourself.
What is the window of tolerance?
The window of tolerance is the optimal arousal level that allows individuals to function normally and manage day-to-day stress effectively. People with an optimal window of tolerance can react healthily to stress and anxiety and manage difficulties without feeling flooded by their emotions. This is their comfort zone, where the brain gives them all the necessary tools to self-regulate their emotional responses.
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The moment you step outside your window of tolerance, your brain loses its capacity to function well, and you struggle to maintain a rational train of thought, reflect, or feel calm, grounded, and safe. This is when you can experience either hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal:
- hyper-arousal (the fight-or-flight response) – often takes the shape of excessive activation, anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, fear, anger, hypervigilance, and agitation.
- hypo-arousal (the freeze response) – leads to emotional numbness, dissociation, lack of energy, feelings of emptiness, and depression.
In either state, the brain loses its ability to function properly and react calmly to stressors and stimuli. The prefrontal cortex region of the brain shuts down, and individuals lose their capacity to maintain their calm and reasonable reactions. This often leads to chaotic responses, brain function dysregulation, and outbursts of emotions.
What can impact our window of tolerance?
Each individual has a window of tolerance. Their window of tolerance varies depending on several factors, including childhood experiences, traumatic experiences, and their environment. People tend to function better when they feel safe and supported and are better equipped to stay for longer within their window of tolerance.
Children with caregivers who took the time to help them understand their feelings and made them feel safe often grow up to have a wider window of tolerance due to their secure foundation and the increased ability to tolerate a broad range of thoughts and emotions.
Children growing up without people teaching them how to tolerate their feelings or understand that all emotions are “allowed” often feel alone and confused, struggle with childhood anxiety, and develop a narrow window of tolerance.
Individuals with a narrow window of tolerance may feel overwhelmed when faced with stress or novelty, while those with a wider window of tolerance have the necessary tolerance to manage stressful situations and intense emotions without feeling overwhelmed or emotionally flat.
Those who have experienced childhood trauma or other types of complex trauma, such as abuse or sexual assault, as well as people struggling with mental health issues often find it difficult to stay within their window of tolerance and struggle to maintain their optimal arousal level.
As their window of tolerance becomes narrower, individuals may perceive the outside world as more dangerous than it is and may find themselves more often in a fight-or-flight response or freeze response. Consequently, people who frequently find themselves outside their window of tolerance often experience post-traumatic stress, anxiety, or depression.
How to recognize your window of tolerance
Emotions follow a pattern of ups and downs. All humans experience anger, pain, anxiety, and hurt at some point in their lives. Do we have the right tools to cope with the ebb and flow that makes us human and regulate our nervous system to manage emotional distress in a healthy manner that keeps us grounded and helps us grow?
Recognizing your window of tolerance means taking the time to observe your reactions and understanding the way you function. It also means paying attention to outside stimuli and your reaction to them and noticing when you operate within your window of tolerance and when you feel pushed out of it.
Pay attention to any signs and try to associate them with the situations that have triggered them. Identify your symptoms and distress level and keep an eye on the cause. Awareness is essential if you want to learn how to stay within your window of tolerance and self-regulate as soon as you experience the first signs of dysregulation.
How to widen your window of tolerance
A wider window of tolerance means an increased tolerance to stress, improved brain function, and a better grasp of the ability to think and feel at the same time. Widening your window of tolerance helps maintain your emotional balance and rational and helpful responses for longer when faced with various obstacles life throws at you. So, how can you increase your window of tolerance to better control your emotions and reactions to outside stimuli?
Mindfulness helps us pay attention to our emotions and stay in the present moment. It does not focus on finding a way to stop what we are feeling. Instead, it switches attention to the causes of our emotions and allows them to run their course without reacting negatively. Take the time to be aware of everything you’re feeling and allow yourself to feel every emotion. Be open and do not try to block negative emotions. Let them flow so they can find their way out of your mind and body without impacting your brain function. Accept your emotions, hold the judgment, and avoid multitasking. This too shall pass, and you’ll learn from it!
Prioritize overall wellness
Happiness is not a given mental state. It is something we have to work towards every single day of our life. Grow your happiness by focusing on increasing your DOSE chemicals – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphin, responsible for a happy state of mind:
- check tasks on your to-do lists
- create art, music, crafts
- listen to music
- cuddle and hug
- go outside
- get a massage
- eat dark chocolate or crunchy or spicy foods
Self-regulation techniques can help you stay within your window of tolerance and maintain a wider comfort zone. As soon as you feel you are stepping out of your window of tolerance, resort to one or several self-regulation strategies to get back to your optimal level of arousal. Self-regulation techniques depend on the type of arousal you experience.
Hyper-arousal self-regulation strategies:
- let go of your anger – lie down to calm yourself, stretch your arms in front of you, shake it off, or hug yourself for a couple of seconds;
- breath – hold your breath for 3 seconds, do at least 10 deep breaths, or take a long deep breath and exhale with your mouth;
- meditate – meditation and yoga can help you regulate your emotions and thoughts while allowing you to regain control.
Hypo-arousal self-regulation strategies:
- activate your senses – listen to music, eat tasty food, get a massage, take a bath, light an aromatic candle;
- exercise – try grounding exercises that connect you with the floor and allow you to see and touch objects around you.
Ask for help
Talking with a therapist about your window of tolerance problems can provide the right tools to help you self-regulate and come back from a hyper-aroused state or hyper-arousal state within your window of tolerance.
Therapists create a safe space where people struggling with dysregulation due to a narrow window of tolerance can share their emotions in full detail, become aware of their feelings and thoughts, and, most importantly, identify the causes behind their emotional state.
A mental health provider can teach you how to connect to the present moment and use cognitive techniques to better gauge your level of hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal. Furthermore, they can provide access to the best breathing technique for you and equip you with the right tools to identify warning signs, calm your nervous system and self-regulate.