Are you wanting to feel more grounded and capable of managing your emotions when faced with stress? Understanding the various states of the nervous system is one of the best skills we can learn to improve our resiliency to stress and one that we can reap the benefits of for the rest of our lives. The window of tolerance is a concept in neuroscience (i.e. the scientific study of the nervous system) that’s used in many trauma-based therapy approaches. The window of tolerance is understood as the “optimal zone of arousal” to function well in life. When we are within our window of tolerance, we feel calm, cool and collected; ready to take on life’s stressors and able to adequately cope with our emotions.
The ways in which an individual can effectively cope with stress depends on how narrow or wide their window of tolerance is. For example, our window of tolerance narrows if we have a history of unresolved trauma, are overworked, overstressed, or are generally not taking good care of ourselves. Additionally, if you struggle with mental health conditions such as an anxiety disorder, ADHD, or autism your window of tolerance may also be affected. With a narrowed window of tolerance, it doesn’t take much to push you out of your calm, cool, and collected state into either an over activated (hyper-aroused) or shut-down (hypo-arousedl) state.
If we have a wider window of tolerance, we still feel pressure or stress, but we are much more capable of staying present and grounded when faced with challenges and stressors. We generally feel safe and secure in our relationships and have more stable self esteem. We can also take better care of ourselves, knowing when to self soothe and when self care is needed. Living optimally is to live in our window of tolerance.
In this article we’ll discuss how to be more aware of triggers that may push you out of your window of tolerance, how to know when you’re in a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state, and effective tools to shift into a more regulated state so you can achieve optimal well-being.
Hyperarousal (“Fight or Flight”)
Signs include being “easily triggered”, acting out in very uncharacteristic ways, and/or an inability to relax or sleep well even when there’s no stressors present. This can manifest as anxiety/fear, anger outbursts, emotional overwhelm, panic, hypervigilance, self sabotage, people- pleasing, and/or fixing or controlling behaviors.
To shift out of hyperarousal, first identify that you are in a hyperactive state, remind yourself to slow down, breathe, and pause. Increase your awareness of physical sensations in the body and your thoughts. Find ways to self-soothe.
Hypoarousal (“Freeze State”)
Signs include feeling completely drained, shut-down and unable to be present in life, but unsure of how you got to this state. This can manifest as depression, dissociation, zoning-out, shame/guilt, feeling powerless, emotionless, numb or flat, oversleeping, and/or an inability to speak.
To shift out of hypoarousal, identify the sensations in the mind and body that signify that you are in a shut-down state. You’ll want to activate the body through movement (even if it’s a few jumping jacks), engage the senses, get outdoors, and reach out for social connection.
To stay within our window of tolerance, or to even widen it, we are going to want to practice a variety of self regulation skills, such as: mindfulness, deep breathing, self compassion and grounding techniques - to name a few.
Vagal toning exercises are another great set of tools to help widen your window of tolerance and can be found here: https://www.sportyandrich.com/blogs/wellness/increasing-emotional-resilience-and-stress-tolerance-via-the-vagus-nerve?fbclid=IwAR1-KKZeqhAL15XyIsADS1wE47U53r_MoiDEsIi-o9OH2ScIOxTTJ48x92U
Ultimately, the goal is to reach safety in the present moment so we can live a happier and healthier life.
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Siegel, D. J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist practicing statewide in California. She helps guide women in overcoming anxiety, perfectionism, and imposter syndrome. To learn more about working with her, visit www.ericabassotherapy.com.