Staying within your Window of Tolerance
Dan Siegel refers to the Window of Tolerance as a span of harmonious functioning. He likens it to a middle ground between chaos and rigidity. Our level of emotional arousal within the window enables us to experience a sense of stability and coherence. We are reflective and flexible; able to think abstractly and adapt our responses to the challenges we face.
There are lots of potential factors which can impact on the size of our Window of Tolerance. When we feel safe, calm and in control, the window will be much wider. Protective factors, such as the support of a loved one or proactively planning to manage a difficult day, can help us to maintain good enough functioning. The window will be narrower if we are coping with multiple sources of stress, feeling exhausted or having to deal with unfamiliar and unpredictable contexts which evoke strong thoughts and feelings.
We move up and down the window and continually stray close to the boundaries. Sitting in a long traffic jam, being let down by a friend or receiving a terse email from a manager may not tip us out of the window on their own, but one could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back if they were all experienced on the same day. It’s that feeling you have when a minor event, which normally wouldn’t make you think twice, is something you fixate on and fume about for the rest of the day.
Children’s Windows of Tolerance are naturally widened when they experience sensitive and responsive co-regulation of their emotions. But this is much less likely for those who have lived in chronic fear and feel a lack of safety and security because of past trauma and loss. Similarly, school staff and parents who continually feel burnt out by various demands will find it harder to think rationally, manage impulses and self-soothe when they slip out of their windows.
The Optimal Zone – The Clear Ocean
I’m going to think of the Window of Tolerance as the rhythmic waves of an ocean. In this space, we are calm, collected and grounded. Our arousal state is one which is open, alert, curious, flexible and balanced. The waters might get choppy from time to time, but we can ride them out and resume smoother sailing.
Hyperarousal – The Clouds of Chaos
Pooky Knightsmith has talked about how we don’t want to shoot through the top or fall through the bottom of our Window of Tolerance. I’m going to liken this to a thunderstorm above the Clear Ocean. It’s when we move into Fight or Flight mode. The following words apply to the Clouds of Chaos:
Our hyper-aroused state can be most easily noticed in our body, as our heartbeat fastens, our breathing becomes shorter and we experience shakiness and aches and pains.
So, what can we do to turn away from the storm and return to more tranquil waters?
Paying more attention to your breathing can make a big difference. A longer exhale is calming, as is breathing in through the left nostril while you hold the right nostril closed. Following a workout or Yoga routine might help to make your breathing more coherent and help you to notice what it feels like in your body.
When you’re feeling all over the place, it can help to ground yourself. This can be as simple as going for a walk and actively noticing the sights and sounds around you. Getting out in nature can be really beneficial for wellbeing. Some find the 5-4-3-2-1 technique helpful as it taps into different senses for a really immersive and active experience.
Directing your energy to certain parts of the body can alleviate tension. Colouring, knitting, making a puzzle or squeezing a stress ball can occupy your hands. Doing some DIY can provide proprioceptive input to your arms and shoulders.
Consider adding a mindful element to everyday routines. If you’re gotten into the habit of quickly shovelling food into your mouth before going back to a stressful task, take time to tidy up and set a place for dinner. Put some slow and gentle music on in the background and really savour the taste and texture of each bite. Drinking through a straw, eating chewy food and humming are other examples of comforting sensory feedback.
You might like a warm bath or shower, dimming the lights or getting cosy in a warm and soft blanket. Some people find it helpful to recite a short script or mantra – “The day is over. Now I can relax. Tomorrow is a new day”. Others like to zero in on the positives of the day or three things we can be grateful for despite facing difficult moments.
Hypoarousal – The Shore of Rigidity
When we fall through the bottom of our Window of Tolerance, it can be as if our ship has run aground. This is our Freeze or Shutdown response. There can be an over-riding feeling of being stuck. Here are some other words that apply to the Shore of Rigidity:
The hypoaroused state is when we notice a real downturn in our mood. Our instinct can be to withdraw and avoid. We lack the motivation to complete tasks or even engage in things which we typically enjoy. This state is associated with a feeling of emptiness and even despair.
So, what can we do to push off from the shore and get back out into the ocean?
We need to do the opposite with our breathing in this case. A longer inhale and shorter exhale and breathing in through the right nostril are more effective when we’re lacking energy and need to wake up the body.
Activation is a key response to hypoarousal. This doesn’t mean signing up for park runs or competitive sports, but those are great options if possible. The Active 10 app is a nice way of developing a routine of daily brisk walks. We can also schedule movement and stretch breaks during long periods on a computer or park further away so that we’re more active when going to and from a place.
Tasks that we normally take for granted can seem impossible when we feel detached or depressed. Try to keep to consistent routines and break down even a mundane activity into small and time-limited steps. Gather evidence that you can set a goal and achieve it, so that you feel more confident in tackling bigger goals in the future.
Fast paced and energetic music is the order of the day. Unleash your inner rocker and feel free to throw some shapes while you’re at it.
Adjusting the sensory profile of our environment can also tip us back into the optimal zone. Replace a warm shower with a cold one, eat crunchier food, have some pungent aromas in your essential oils and add more lighting to your surroundings.
Navigating Calmer Waters
To finish off this blog, how can we see more of the Clear Ocean and pay less attention to land on the horizon and storm clouds overhead? Elizabeth Stanley has written about how we are able to function more effectively during stress and recover from said stress when we have a wider Window of Tolerance.
Here are some ideas for staying within and expanding our windows.
Knowing your triggers is perhaps the most important starting point. What are the times of day when you notice a big change in your wellbeing? Are there certain activities you dread? Who are the people that bring you down or stress you out? Staying aware of these triggers can help us to make good decisions before we face the clouds or the shore.
Planning ahead can help to reduce a lot of unnecessary stress. Ever notice how you feel much more relaxed when you’ve organised all of your belongings for work the night before instead of 20 minutes before you’re heading out the door in the morning? If you constantly find yourself rushing, try to give yourself more time, space things out and focus on doing the most important stuff first.
Keeping to healthy habits is easier said than done. But start slow and small. This might be scheduling one or two walks a week, at times when you are most likely to follow through. Similarly, try heading to bed a little earlier and finding a new book or album to dissuade you from reading the news or checking your emails in bed.
Connecting with others is part of the five ways to wellbeing, given how important relationships are for our physical and mental health. Make time to talk to your family and friends, check in with someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, let someone know that you’re thinking about them and spread some kindness around your social network.
Prioritising yourself can be one of the last things you do when you have a demanding job or lots of commitments at home or elsewhere. But there comes a point when it’s healthier and more authentic to say “No” or “Not right now” to something that you would normally do regardless of how you feel. We also need to build in time for what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to as “flow activities” – things which allow us to feel completely absorbed and fulfilled. Lastly, taking a break should be proactively planned, so that we relax and recharge often enough to prevent us reaching burnout.
References and Further Reading/Viewing
Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2002. Flow: The Classic Work on how to achieve Happiness. London: Rider.
Knightsmith, P., 2018. Window of Tolerance – A Simple Tool for Emotional Regulation.
Mind.org.uk: 5 Ways to Wellbeing. https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-yourself/five-ways-to-wellbeing/
Rae, T., 2021. My Kindness Plan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0KtPlMjCUo
Siegel, D.J. 2020. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape who we are. Third Edition. New York: The Guilford Press.
Stanley, E.A., 2019. Widen the Window: Training your Brain and Body to Thrive during Stress and Recover from Trauma. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.