What is your 'Window of Tolerance'?
Let’s take a look at the window of tolerance and how understanding it can help us when dealing with some of the anxieties and fears we may face when coming out of lockdowns. "Window of tolerance" was a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegal, a prominent psychiatrist, and it’s used to describe the zone in which a person is able to function most effectively. When people are within this zone, they are typically able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life without too much difficulty. When we get pushed out of this zone by any kind of negative or adverse event, it pushes us into a state of either hyper or hypo arousal which we’ll explore in a moment.
It's important to recognize here that each individual's window of tolerance is different – some people have quite a narrow window so often feel like their emotions are difficult to manage or that they are being pulled into hyper-arousal. Others have a much wider window, in that they can tolerate quite a lot of adversity, whilst still functioning well.
What takes you out of your window of tolerance, may be different to what takes me out of mine, so in this sense we need to build up self-awareness of what these triggers are and how to look after ourselves in these moments.
Our mood and our feelings generally go up and down throughout the day, this is completely normal and can be influenced by both internal and external factors. So it could be down to how you’re feeling emotionally that day, your hormones etc. It could be down to external factors like a conversation you had with someone or something that happened at work. But generally when we’re within our window of tolerance, we’re at a place where we can easily manage these ups and downs. This is also a place where we’re able to manage challenges, we’ll be doing our best work, and we’re generally at our personal best.
Sometimes, however, something triggers us to go into either hyper or hypo arousal.
Hyper-arousal is that fight or flight mode – feelings of anxiety, heart palpitations, sweaty palms etc. Hypo-arousal is when we go into our freeze mode. When we feel low, depressed or feel like we’re shutting down emotionally – often we feel a lack of motivation here.
What we want to do is get an understanding of what impacts where we are on our window of tolerance. It’s worth being particularly aware of this, as the outside world is starting to open up.
When we are able to create awareness of when we’re inside or outside of our window of tolerance, we’ll be able to manage our wellbeing much more effectively, especially during times of adversity or difficulty. We also need to learn what we need to do to get back into our window of tolerance when we feel like we’ve been pulled out. This is one of the key factors in managing our wellbeing effectively.
I want you to first recognize what is taking you out of your window of tolerance at the moment and into fight, flight or freeze mode? This will be different for each person but it could be getting on public transport, or going into an office space. It could be certain video meetings or maybe it’s watching the news. Can you identify one or two things at the moment which are taking you outside your window? Even if it’s just the thought of these things?
Once we’ve been pulled outside our window of tolerance, how do we get back into it? If you feel you’ve gone into fight or flight mode you want to do as much as you can to try and calm the nervous system – you might find relaxing music helps, deep breathing or a mindfulness exercise.
If you feel you’ve gone into freeze mode – what can you do to uplift yourself? It might be listening to upbeat music, it might be focusing on gratitude, or perhaps you could call a friend.
By identifying what is taking you out of your window, next time you encounter that situation you can be slightly better prepared – you’re learning what self-care strategies here work for you and that knowledge in itself can really help get us back into our window of tolerance.