Understanding your window of tolerance is a useful tool in creating better resilience and improving your ability to manage stressful and challenging situations, especially during difficult times of adversity. Let’s explore the window of tolerance and how it affects you and your ability to respond to the demands of life.
What Is the Window of Tolerance?
The window of tolerance is the zone of arousal—including both the reactions of our brain and body—where we function most effectively. The phrase was first used by Dr. Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.
When we are in our optimal zone, we can process and integrate information and stimuli with little difficulty; we can think rationally without feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or emotionally numb. We are alert, calm, and actively and productively engaged in our day-to-day activities.
Our ability to tolerate the demands of life and the normal ups and downs of our emotions, while still remaining within our window of tolerance, depends upon the size of our window.
The size of our optimal zone is individual to each of us and is influenced by a variety of factors, including early childhood experiences and trauma-related incidents we may have suffered.
The Impact of Extreme Stress on Your Window of Tolerance
Extreme stress or adversity can push us out of our optimal window, leading us to a state of either hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
Hyperarousal — our flight or fight response — is often typified by a state of hypervigilance with feelings of panic or anxiety. On the other hand, hypoarousal creates a freeze response, and we can experience feelings of paralysis, or a desire to shut down and withdraw.
During these times of hyperarousal or hypoarousal, we are outside of our window of tolerance and unable to think clearly and function effectively. Hyperarousal can include feelings of rage, impulsivity, racing thoughts, and nightmares. With hypoarousal, we may experience fatigue, hopelessness, self-loathing, and feelings of emptiness.
As mentioned, the size of the window of tolerance varies from person to person. For those with a narrow optimal zone, emotions may seem difficult to manage or they may experience lower emotional tolerance. With a wider optimal zone, you may feel more confident about handling intense situations or feelings without compromising your ability to function and respond to life’s demands.
Over time, chronic stress or trauma can actually shrink or narrow your window of tolerance, making it increasingly difficult to process information and manage day-to-day challenges. For those in this situation, there might be a heightened sense of danger or feelings that the world is unsafe. As a result, a persistent pattern of either hyperarousal or hypoarousal may set in.
If you’ve experienced significant trauma in your life, you may find that even minor stress can cause an extreme flight or fight, or freeze response. Depending on your response style, you may experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress, as with hyperarousal, or intense feelings of numbness and memory difficulties caused by hypoarousal.
For anyone, operating outside of your window of tolerance for frequent periods of time can cause mental health concerns, especially anxiety and depression.
Managing and Improving the Window of Tolerance
Understanding your window of tolerance can help you learn to better manage and improve your optimal zone, thereby increasing your resilience when faced with the demands of life. It’s possible to widen your window and practice more adaptive techniques for dealing with stress and adversity.
As you become more aware of how you respond to extreme stress—whether hyperarousal or hypoarousal—you can practice certain interventions or techniques to counter your reactions and remain within your optimal zone. Here are some activities to help:
Techniques to decrease arousal…
- Deep breathing
- A warm bath
- Vigorous exercise or dancing
- A walk in nature
- Calming music
- Journaling to express your feelings
Techniques to increase arousal…
- Movement or exercise
- Balancing on one leg
- Eating crunchy food
- Drawing or painting
- Playing music or singing
- Listening to upbeat or stimulating music
Whether you’re trying to decrease or increase arousal, the goal is to learn techniques, including mindfulness-based practices, that help you remain in the present moment and allow you to stay calm when faced with highly stressful situations.
Cultivating the ability to self-soothe and remain connected to yourself and others in the face of adversity or extreme stress can be beneficial in living life more fully and joyfully.
Becoming aware of your personal cues that you’re entering either a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal is the first step in learning to manage and improve your window of tolerance. For example, if you tend toward hyperarousal under stress, your inability to stay calm may be an important sign. For those who tend to experience hypoarousal, you may notice that you’re starting to withdraw.
It may take time to become aware of your cues, especially if you’ve experienced significant trauma in your life. But it is possible to strengthen your resilience and expand your optimal zone.
Therapy can be an effective tool in understanding your window of tolerance and developing more effective and adaptive responses to stress. Learning to identify your triggers and self-regulate when you’re approaching the limits of your optimal window can lead to a healthier, more grounded sense of self.
Your window of tolerance is also affected by your support network. In general, when we feel safe and supported, we can more comfortably stay within our optimal zone.
If you’d like to explore more about your window of tolerance and ways to better manage your response to stress, please contact us.
We can help you identify your window of tolerance, become aware of the cues and triggers that push you out of your optimal zone, and provide the support and techniques for improving your responses to stress.