Do You Know Your Window of Tolerance?
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
Stress is inevitable but it does not have to ruin our lives. We have the freedom to choose how to respond to emotionally triggering events that flood our system with a cocktail of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
The human brain and body are equipped with an amazing stress-response system that can get activated automatically without our conscious input. Just think of a time when you got assigned to do extra work or you got hit with a surprise pop quiz in class. You may have felt frustrated and annoyed or maybe even helpless and withdrawn.
Stressful tasks, a car that keeps honking on the street or even a dog barking outside at three o’clock in the morning can all elicit a variety of emotional responses. However, we usually go back to “normal” soon after the stressful situation resolves.
We all handle stress differently depending on our window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is a model developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. Dr. Siegel suggests that there is a range of “optimal arousal states” where emotions can be tolerated and integrated. This ideal emotional zone is thought to be different for all of us. This means that you may have a wider window of tolerance than the person next to you or vice versa.
Knowing when you have crossed your threshold is critical in tolerating uncomfortable feelings associated with distressing events. In a state of hyperarousal, one may find him/herself emotionally reactive, fearful, angry and experience racing thoughts. In a state of hypoarousal, one might find him/herself numb, empty, mentally “not there” and unable to think. It is also common for people to experience a lack of motivation and depression in a state of hypoarousal.
The activation of the sympathetic (e.g., fight/flight) and parasympathetic nervous system (e.g., freeze) can result in the hyper-and-hypo arousal states mentioned above.
The good news is that we can widen our window of tolerance and learn to experience difficult emotions without getting overwhelmed. According to an article by psychiatrist Frank Corrigan and colleagues from Imperial College London “mindful curiosity” is regulating for both hyperarousal and hypoarousal states. In other words, simply learning about your stress-response patterns can be helpful in widening your window of tolerance. Physical activities that require focused attention, listening to soothing music and deep breathing can all help if you find yourself entering the hyperarousal zone. If, on the other hand you find yourself in hypoarousal, stimulating activities like listening to upbeat music or a brisk walk outside are said to be beneficial.
We cannot always have control over the stressful situations in our life but we can learn to meet our needs in a way that brings us back into a state of balance.
- 1. Corrigan, F. M., Fisher, J. J.,& Nutt, D. J. (2010). Autonomic dysregulation and the window of tolerance model of the effects of complex emotional trauma. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 1-9. DOI: 10.1177/0269881109354930 jop.sagepub.com
- 2. https://psychcentral.com/health/window-of-tolerance#tips