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Window of Tolerance

Posted on Mon, Sep 21, 2020 By:
Posted in: blogMental Health & Mindfulness

Good morning friends! You are welcome here.

When you look through your window, what do you see? At this time of the year, in Calgary, we see sun one day, rain the next, and snow the next day after that. Actually – who am I kidding? – we can see all that in one day 🙂 But I mean metaphorically – what do you see when you look through your window into the future?  Do you see promise? Do you see hope? Treasures and beauty amidst the occasional grey cloud? Or do you see a storm brewing? Swirling clouds of chaos, uncertainty, foreboding?

Have you heard of the window of tolerance? We all have one. Its that space where we feel comfortable, calm, and a sense of well-being with ourselves and others. We are constantly self-regulating to remain in this window of comfort, such that even when life’s troubles come along, we do what we can to keep a comfortable balance within this window. For e.g., we might schedule time to chat with a friend, get a massage, go for a walk, take time off work, do a mindfulness, or follow through with a solution.  These things allow us to tolerate life challenges without getting dysregulated, or out of balance.

A larger window of tolerance allows for more flexibility and success in adapting to the various stressors in life. A smaller window tolerates a smaller amount of stress and is more quickly overwhelmed and exhausted, pushing the person more rapidly into hyperarousal or hypoarousal. How big our window is depends on our early experiences, our personality, how successful we have been with tolerating troubles in the past, and how well we have developed our resiliency. 

Your window is your window. It’s valuable to acknowledge that we all have a limit to our window of tolerance. It’s also helpful to know that we have the ability to widen our window of tolerance by practicing strategies for coping, strengthening, and self-soothing.  

Regardless of the size of your window of tolerance, troubles sometimes pile up and overwhelm us. Either they come on really quickly, or we neglect the small challenges until they get bigger or accumulate. We’re busy, or distracted. Or, a pandemic comes along that knocks our socks off because it’s a huge unexpected stressor that none of us were prepared for or familiar with. And that’s where we are.

When COVID-19 came along, most of us didn’t have time or resources to manage the stress and stay in our window of tolerance. Many of us were catapulted out of our window into one of two dysregulated places: a) into hyperarousal where the flight/fight response takes over or b) into hypoarousal where the freeze response takes over. We talked about the flight/fight and freeze responses in one of my earlier emails, so here I’ll just talk about the symptoms of hyperarousal and hypoarousal.

Hyperarousal – if you found yourself overwhelmed, anxious, angry, and impulsive in response to the pandemic, you were hyperaroused. The risk of this stage is the tendency to blame and lash out at others, make unhealthy reactive decisions, and feel out of control. The benefits of this stage is that you react to avoid or alleviate danger. You act to get rid of the problem and survive, but you may inadvertently hurt others or yourself in the process.

Hypoarousal – if you found yourself numb, apathetic, shut-down and even experiencing memory loss, you were hypoaroused. The risk of this stage is the tendency to withdraw, underestimate, and under appreciate the need to do something differently. Freezing may be helpful in some situations, but in others it may ignore the need for healthy action towards a solution to the problem. You lay low, and wait it out, which is great if it goes away on its own. But if it doesn’t you may end up avoiding the problem as it gets bigger.

Both reactions to being nudged – or catapulted! – out of your window of tolerance – are normal. And manageable. By acknowledging where you are at, you can identify strategies for returning to your window of tolerance.

These include:

– grounding

– self-soothing and self-nurturing

– mindfulness

problem-solving

– acknowledging and accepting your emotions as they are, not as you think they should be

– deep slow breathing

– positive affirmations and self-statements

– exercise

– healthy eating
– healthy and nurturing social interactions

Take a moment today to think about your window of tolerance and where you are at right now. Are you within your window, in that sweet spot, feeling pretty balanced and comfortable with adapting to current stressors?  Or, are you on edge and irritable, or apathetic and numb? What can you do for yourself today to begin moving back in to your window of tolerance? Using self-compassion (“it’s normal and ok for me to feel overwhelmed by what’s happening”), gently guide yourself towards a greater sense of peace amidst the stress using self-nurturing, problem solving, and grounding strategies.

stay well,

Melanie

References:

1. A beautiful and thorough graphic on the Window of Tolerance is available at:  https://www.drmariedezelic.com/window-of-tolerance–traumaanxiety-rela

2. A great article on staying within the window of tolerance: https://theawarenesscentre.com/coping-with-trauma/

Especially for those we work with:

You probably know the folks you work with well enough to sense when they are maxxing out their window of tolerance and headed for – or already there! – hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Coach the person to consider using one of more of the strategies listed above to calm and cope with the stressors and return to their window of tolerance.  Also, teaching the person about the window of tolerance (see the link above for an amazing info-graphic) and helping them to identify for themselves what it feels like to be in their own window of tolerance vs. out of their window of tolerance can be very helpful in developing improved self-regulation. Discuss how the person feels (in their body and in their emotions), and thinks (the thoughts they have about themselves, the situation, and others) during these times and identify these as cues of increasing stress and a prompt to use strategies to reverse the course. P.S.  don’t forget to do this for yourself, too! an empathetic teacher is an effective teacher 🙂

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