What Is Your Window Of Tolerance and How To Stay Within It

window of tolerance and arousal states

window of tolerance and arousal states

Everyone has a window of tolerance within which we operate optimally. Unfortunately, various situations can throw us out of our window of tolerance. When that happens, we can go into a state of hyperarousal or a state of hypoarousal. In such states, we don’t feel well, often exhibiting symptoms similar to anxiety or depression. Luckily, there are things we can do to widen our window of tolerance as well as to stay within that window even during trying times.

What Is The Window of Tolerance?

Window of Tolerance is a neuroscientific model for understanding our arousal state. The term itself is most frequently attributed to Dan Siegel, UCLA School of Medicine Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and founding co-director of the school’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

We all experience stimulation or arousal all throughout the day. All types of different things trigger reactions within us. Our window of tolerance is the regular state of being during which we can optimally handle that stimuli.

what is your window of tolerance

Inside of Our Window of Tolerance

When inside of our window of tolerance, we are able to emotionally self-regulate. Even if something challenging happens, we can stay grounded, open, curious, and flexible. We can remain in the present moment and respond accordingly. We can function well. Physically, we have steady breathing, a regular heart rate, and loose muscles.

Outside of Our Window of Tolerance

When too many different things trigger us, or when we face a very traumatic stimulus, we may move outside of our window of tolerance. As a result, we may enter either hyperarousal or hypoarousal.

trauma and the window of tolerance

Hyperarousal

When we go into hyperarousal, we often exhibit symptoms of anxiety. Typically, it feels like the fight/flight instinct has kicked in. We feel overwhelm, stress, anger, irritability, and hypervigilance. We might become chaotic, extra-busy, impulsive or restless. Sometimes people stop eating and sleeping. Physical symptoms may include chronic musculoskeletal pain, rapid heart rate, hyperventilation, and hypertension.

Hypoarousal

In contrast, we can go into a state of hypoarousal. This can show up as symptoms of depression. Instead of “fight or flight,” we feel the “freeze.” We begin to feel numb and can’t always identify other emotions except for feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and shame. Brain fog, indecision, hyper compliance, and feeling a lack of control or agency are other common symptoms. We become passive and withdrawn, often over-sleeping and over-eating. Physical symptoms may include dizziness, headaches, nausea, and shallow breathing.

Stephen Porges, from Polyvagal Theory

source: Stephen Porges, from Polyvagal Theory via Ruby Jo Walker

Staying Within Your Window Of Tolerance

Ideally, you want to maintain yourself within your window of tolerance as often as possible so that you can respond optimally to various situations. Of course, sometimes that’s impossible. For example, if you face a sudden threat to your life, it’s biologically normal to go into fight/flight mode and to leave your window of tolerance. It’s a survival mechanism.

Unfortunately, what happens to a lot of us, particularly those of us who have experienced trauma throughout life, is that our mind-bodies enter fight/flight or freeze mode even in situations that aren’t life-threatening. We experience them as though they are, even though objectively they aren’t. It’s important to learn about our window of tolerance, so that we can practice ways of staying within that window.

Notably, even people who don’t identify as having gone through serious trauma can have trouble staying within the window of tolerance. Our modern world is filled with excessive stimuli and constant sources of strain and stress. As stressors stack up, we risk moving out of the window of tolerance.

opening the window of tolerance

Tips for Staying Within Your Window of Tolerance

There are daily and regular practices that you can do to assist you to stay inside of your window of tolerance. Notably, these can also grow your window of tolerance. Some people have very large windows. In other words, they can handle a lot of stressors before they enter hyperarousal or hypoarousal states. Other people have much smaller windows, especially people who have been through trauma. As you work with various practices, you can both maintain and grow your window of tolerance.

Some of the things that can help include:

  • Educate yourself about arousal states. Know what they look like in general. Recognize what they look like for you. Note that most people tend towards either hyperarousal or hypoarousal. However, the same person can enter either state. In fact, before balancing back into the window of tolerance, people sometimes swing from one state to the other.
  • Practice mindfulness, grounding, and resourcing. There are many different mindfulness techniques, somatic approaches, and breathing exercises that can assist you in remaining present in the here and now. This is key to staying within your window of tolerance.
  • Limit exposure to triggers. Obviously, this isn’t always possible. Many different things stimulate us throughout the day. However, you can reduce exposure. For example, did you know that each time you receive an alert on your phone or computer, it produces a minor stress reaction in the body? Simply turning off alerts can help you stay within your window of tolerance.

What To Do When In Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal

Despite all of your best efforts, you might find yourself in a state of either hyperarousal or hypoarousal. It’s okay. The first thing is to recognize what’s going on. Know that this is a normal physiological reaction to stress. Be gentle with yourself, understanding that you need time, space, and support to decompress and come back into your window of tolerance. The same tips that assist you in staying within your window will also help you get back into that window. In particular, make use of mindfulness and grounding practices that bring you into the present moment.

Therapy Helps You Maintain and Grow Your Window of Tolerance

Therapy is a tool. It’s also a practice that provides you with many other tools. As a result, therapy can assist you in understanding arousal states. It can help you stay within and grow your tolerance levels. As a result, it can help you live your best life. Contact us today to find a therapist who is right for you.

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