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Wellness & Beyond

Navigating Your Window of Tolerance

October 18, 2022

By D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program Staff

Given the compounding chronic stressors of the past few years, many people have been walking an emotional tightrope. Something as simple as a call from your boss or an email from your child’s teacher can send you into an anxious spiral.

Do you feel that if one more thing goes wrong, you might explode or collapse? Do you have a shorter fuse or worry more than you used to? Do you just want to hide from the world? Or maybe you are so fried you feel nothing at all. These common emotional experiences can be explained through Dan Siegel’s Window of Tolerance Model.

The term “window of tolerance” is commonly used to understand and describe the normal body/brain reactions to stress and adversity. The idea is that everyone has an optimal level of arousal (how alert they are) that allows them to handle the ups and downs of emotions. Remember, you are human and have lots of emotions. This window is where you can manage your feelings, without losing control, and make (relatively) clear-headed, rational decisions.

When you are in that optimal space, you feel calm but alert and are able to engage in the tasks at hand. While people may experience hurt, anxiety, frustration, pain, and anger that bring them close to the edges of their window of tolerance, they generally can utilize strategies to stay within this window.

Unfortunately, threats and stress shrink people’s windows of tolerance. While everyone’s window is different, the chronic stress in recent years has many individuals navigating a much smaller window. When your window of tolerance is smaller, you’re likely to fluctuate more often through hyperarousal (“fight/flight” response) and hypoarousal (“freeze” response), the states of being outside your window.

When your level of arousal is too high and jumps above your window of tolerance (hyperarousal), you may feel overwhelmed, angry, upset by small things, restless, anxious, self-critical, or even out of control. When your arousal is too low and dips below your window of tolerance (hypoarousal), you may feel disconnected, numb, unmotivated, ashamed, and unable to set boundaries.

When you move outside your window, your brain and body are overloaded, and you have trouble registering feelings and responding appropriately. Hypoarousal and hyperarousal are automatic coping states that help people survive an overwhelming moment. They are the brain's safety response, but sometimes the body's method of staying safe is not always useful in day-to-day interactions and responsibilities.

To stay in (or get back into) your window of tolerance, practice these techniques:

Do deep breathingSlow, steady deep breaths trigger the body’s natural calming system to help relax. The key is for the exhale to be longer than the inhale.

Practice grounding methods. Bringing yourself back to the present helps reduce anxiety. An example is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise: Identify and describe 5 objects, 4 sounds, 3 textures, 2 smells, and 1 taste.

Stimulate or soothe your senses. If you are hyperaroused, soothe your senses by playing calming music, lighting a scented candle, eating comforting food, drinking hot tea, or curling up with a blanket. If you are hypoaroused, stimulate your senses by listening to upbeat music, dancing, chewing crunchy food, or smelling essential oils.

Get physical. Movement can be vigorous or gentle, like rocking.

Journal. Acknowledging feelings helps you to process them.

Practice self-compassion. This reduces shame and quiets the stress response in your body. Try noticing the negative self-talk when it occurs. Then imagine what a good friend would say to you and offer that advice to yourself.

Practicing creates muscle memory, so you are more likely to access these techniques under stress if you have rehearsed them in moments of calm.

To help you utilize helpful coping techniques more quickly, try to notice what triggers push you toward the edges of your window. Do interactions with certain people cause you to go on high alert? Does getting out the door in the morning increase tension? Do certain news stories cause you to shut down? Notice these and as you think about your day, think about the stressors that may trigger you, and identify what strategies will help you navigate them.

Need guidance in navigating your window of tolerance? Email [email protected] or call 202-347-3131 for free and confidential services of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program.