Your window of tolerance is the optimal emotional zone in which you can properly function. Coined by American psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, the term aims to define the mental state in which individuals can adequately process situations and stimuli. When you are within your window of tolerance, you are able to carry out daily activities with relative ease. But what happens when you are pushed outside of it? And how can you identify your window and potentially build it? Read on to find out more.
What does being outside of your window of tolerance look like?
Your window of tolerance is situated between the state of hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Hyperarousal is a state of heightened sensitivity to stimuli, and is characterized by feelings of agitation, irritability and anxiety. Hypoarousal, on the other hand, is a state of ‘shut-down’ which occurs when the nervous system is overwhelmed. It is characterized by feelings of numbness, dissociation, and withdrawal. Hyperarousal is also known as the fight-or-flight trauma response, and hypoarousal as the freeze response.
When you are triggered by something that pushes you out of your window, you may experience a number of symptoms. Some of the most common are:
- Increased anxiety and irritability
- Experiencing flashbacks and nightmares
- Feeling numb or disconnected
- Memory and concentration issues
- Dissociation or derealization
Which factors affect your window of tolerance?
Everyone’s window is different, as it is affected by your own personal experiences and background. It can be impacted by various factors, such as upbringing, mental state and personal relationship history. For instance, if you have an anxiety disorder, it is likely that you are pushed into hyperarousal more easily than someone who does not.
Traumatic events also have the capacity to alter your nervous system and subsequently narrow your window. Indeed, trauma pushes you out of your emotional safety zone, making you respond differently to stressors. These triggers can be internal, such as feeling anxious, angry and out of control. They can also be external, such as specific smells, locations or anniversaries.
It is important to remember that trauma is very personal. Something that may be traumatic to one person may not affect someone else in the same way. Different events affect people in various ways, so whilst examples of traumatic situations commonly include assault and abuse, other types of trauma do occur and are just as valid.
How can you widen your window of tolerance?
In order to widen your window of tolerance, you need to identify its limits. You can do this by trying to gain awareness of situations which trigger hyper- and hypoarousal. This can be challenging, as when you are in a state of response, your first thought will not be to take note of what is happening. Instead, when enough time has passed and you have returned inside your window, try noting certain things. What triggered you? How did you react? What did or could have helped you in that situation?
The most effective way of identifying your window is by seeking help from a mental health professional. Talking through your background and past experiences will help pinpoint your triggers, and what you can do to build your tolerance back up again. Embodied and somatic therapies also help you feel into bodily sensations to gently build the capacity in your window.
Tips for managing symptoms of hyper and hypoarousal:
Whilst the best way to overcome triggers is by identifying them and working through them, there are ways to manage symptoms of trauma responses. Establishing some kind of routine can help ground you. Some examples of grounding activities include: breathing exercises, journaling, meditation, connecting with loved ones, and light exercise such as walking and yoga. Find what works for you, and try to implement it where you can.
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