Have you ever heard of the Window of Tolerance?
Originally developed by Dan Siegel, MD, it is a great way to describe the different ways we emotionally and physiologically approach different situations. When we are stressed, our bodies react unconsciously in various ways depending on the situation/context we are in and the number of resources we have to meet the situation (i.e., social supports, experience with situation before, etc.). Each of the three windows in the image above corresponds to a different type of strategy to deal with the stressor and each strategy uses a different branch of our nervous system. The whole purpose is to help us survive and make it through situations of varying threat-level.
Let’s say you are at work and everything is going according to plan. You are feeling safe, in control, and relatively at ease. Most likely you are in the middle window, the ‘Window of Tolerance,’ which is governed by the ventral branch of the vagus nerve in the Parasympathetic Nervous System. Sometimes this is also referred to as the Social Engagement System.
Then your boss comes up to you and yells at you for not doing something you are supposed to be doing. You start to feel threatened, anxious, maybe begin to sweat, and start to think about either yelling back at your boss or just quitting your job altogether. This is most likely the top window, ‘Hyperarousal,’ which is like the fight or flight system. It is governed by the Sympathetic Nervous System.
Perhaps, after some thinking (this likely happens unconsciously) you realize that you have yelled at your boss before and it only made things worse for you at work. You also realize that you can’t quit as you need your job and you have quit too many jobs in the last year. You then start to feel helpless, powerless, numb, zoned out and resigned to submit/defer to your boss and do whatever they say. It’s like you lose all sense of will, desire, and motivation for anything. This is the bottom window, ‘Hypoarousal,’ and it is governed by the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve in the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The process of movement/cycling between these windows can vary per person, depending on their negative and positive attachment experiences as well as their history of experiencing trauma. For instance, oftentimes individuals who have experienced trauma (particularly traumas such as childhood abuse or neglect – often diagnosed as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD)) will report feeling chronically in a hyperarousal state (the top window) and after some time will move to the hypoarousal state (bottom window) while rarely feeling calm and in control of themselves, thus not feeling able to move into the middle window.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel if you find yourself struggling to get to the middle window. By first understanding when you are in either the top or the bottom window you can then develop strategies to support yourself into the middle window. The more you do this (practice makes better) the more you are learning to regulate your emotions and physiology – you essentially are re-training your nervous system and developing healthier emotional habits by continuously regulating yourself back to the middle when you find yourself struggling with the other windows. Over time, this makes that middle window larger, and the other windows smaller, thus you end up increasing your tolerance for emotional and physiological experiences and therefore are less and less likely to find yourself in either of the top or bottom windows.
Of course, this is all easier said than done, but if you are able to begin recognizing even once when you are in a window you don’t want to be in you have already started the process of creating stronger neural connections (neural plasticity) that will make it easier and easier to do this again and again.
Once you recognize you are in one of these windows, I encourage you to tell yourself this (or journal/write about it) in the moment (i.e., “I am feeling hyperaroused right now”). Next, try to label your physical sensations (i.e., “I feel my shoulders are tense, my fists are clenching, and I am getting a headache”). Then, label some of your emotions (see this blog here about tools for counselling to find a link to a feeling wheel that can help with this).
The more you go through this process of self-regulation and self-awareness (recognize, explore, label, support) the more natural it will become and the more of a habit it will become. I encourage you to do this when you don’t think you need it as well (when you are feeling good) because this will help develop the habit even more.
Some strategies that can help:
- First remove triggers (i.e., leave area, change environment, etc.)
- Box breathing (inhale for 4 sec, hold for 4 sec, exhale for 4 sec, hold for 4 sec, and repeat)
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
- Count down from 100 by 7 (100-7) until zero and repeat until you increase your awareness of your surroundings and your self (you feel safe)
If you found this helpful and are curious to learn more about your own experience you can contact me to have a free consultation here to see if counselling is right for you.