The window of tolerance is a term coined by Dan Siegel to describe a state of effective functioning. When someone is within the window of tolerance they can receive and process information, feel grounded and present, and are able to emotionally regulate.
Hyper vs Hypo Arousal
When stress and/or trauma enters the picture, it can be difficult for a person to stay emotionally regulated, and they can respond to things as if there were a threat, when in reality, there is none. This means that they have a small window of tolerance. Things that trigger a trauma response cause the body to step outside of the window of tolerance leading a person to feel either hyperarousal, or hypo arousal.
Hyperarousal is more commonly known as the “fight, flight or freeze” response. The brain and body are thrown into the sympathetic or “stress” response causing them to feel hypervigilant, anxious, angry, fearful, or overwhelmed. Hypo arousal, on the other hand, is when someone shuts down. They may report feeling numb or withdrawn, depressed or empty.
Expanding the Window
Let’s talk about how you can expand your window of tolerance. Even if you feel like your window is small, it can grow! Learning & practicing the following techniques can help you expand the window of tolerance:
- Mindfulness & Grounding—these two techniques help a person stay in the present moment and to become aware of not only what is occurring within their body but also what’s going on around them.
- Movement / Yoga / Exercise—Movement whether it’s dancing, yoga, walking or lifting weights, helps move tension out of the body.
- Breath Work—Breathing is one of the built-in, God given gifts we have as human beings. While it is part of the autonomic nervous system (meaning it happens automatically), it is a bodily function that we can control. AND it is one of the fastest and easiest ways to calm our brain and body during times of stress. To activate the relaxation response, think about breathing deeply into the base of your rib cage where the diaphragm muscle resides, then ask you exhale make your exhale LONGER than your inhale. This stimulates the vagus nerve (which runs to the diaphragm muscle) stimulating the parasympathetic response (aka relaxation response).
- Guided Imagery—by imagining a place that feels safe and calm, you can cultivate a feeling of peace and relaxation allowing your brain to calm down.
- Healthy Social Connections—Several studies suggest that having a strong social support network reduces stress and improves self-esteem.
- Practicing Good Self-Care—You’ve probably heard before that you need to be the best version of yourself so that you can pour into others effectively. Not making time for self-care can perpetuate feelings of burn out and stress leading to a smaller window of tolerance. Take time to care for yourself each day, even if it’s as little as 15 minutes. This might look like reading your bible, praying, taking a hot bath, drinking a hot cup of tea etc.
- Prioritizing Sleep and Healthy Nutrition—Fueling our bodies with proper nutrition and getting enough sleep helps us fight stress, improves energy, regulates mood and restores the body.
If you’re feeling stressed and unable to stay emotionally regulated, counseling involving the whole you—mind, body, and spirit, can help you learn to identify and stay within your window of tolerance. Reach out to a trusted counselor to help you navigate managing your window of tolerance.