Have you ever been in a situation that triggered such an intense emotional response that you felt like you were completely taken over, losing all control? It almost felt like you were having an out-of-body experience, dissociating from yourself and your surroundings? Maybe you experience extreme rage, lashing out, and yelling, or you may feel completely numb and unable to react.
When stress triggers reactions like irritability, panic, rage, or conversely, a sense of numbness, disconnection, or freezing, you may have stepped outside your “window of tolerance.” This window is where you operate at your best and can even thrive. Mental Health Professionals believe that understanding and managing your emotions is key for overall emotional well-being and improving your mental health.
What is the Window of Tolerance?
The Window of Tolerance was developed by Dr. Dan Siegel. It refers to your emotional experience and the optimal range of emotional and physiological arousal within you that can effectively cope with stressors. In this zone, you can experience and process emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down. If your arousal falls outside the window, you experience intense emotions and may enter either a Hyper-aroused state (fight or flight response) or a Hypo-aroused state (freeze or dissociation).
What happens when you exceed your Window of Tolerance?
When the amygdala (the survival part of the brain) is activated, it will put you in a state of fight/flight(hyperarousal) or freeze (hypoarousal). Safety is your priority in this state, and emotional regulation takes a back seat as the prefrontal cortex (reasoning brain) shuts down.
If you find yourself slipping into survival mode and frequently outside of your window of tolerance, it could be that past trauma has been triggered. As trauma memories are stored in the body, they have no sense of time or delineation between past and present. It is as if the trauma is occurring in the present day. As a result, the brains of trauma sufferers are often in overdrive, attempting to detect threats. Rhe slightest stressor can trigger responses that feel impossible to regulate emotionally.
Hyper-arousal makes you feel like your emotions are off the wall. Your body is on high alert, ready to fight or flee. The overactivation of the amygdala makes your arousal levels skyrocket to the point of overwhelm. You react as though you are in imminent danger manifesting as:
- Increased heart rate: You may notice your heart pounding, racing, or even skipping beats. It feels like your heart is working overtime to keep up with the intense sensations coursing through your body.
- Physical tension: Your body feels tight and tense. Your muscles may be constantly clenched, leading to headaches, jaw pain, or backaches.
- Difficulty sleeping: When in a state of hyper-arousal, it becomes challenging to relax and fall asleep. Your mind is constantly on high alert, making it hard to wind down and get the rest you need.
- Hypervigilance: Your senses may become hyper-sensitive, causing you to feel easily startled or overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. You might find yourself constantly scanning your surroundings for potential threats.
- Irritability and anger: Hyper-arousal often goes hand in hand with heightened emotions, particularly irritability and anger. Small triggers can set off intense emotional outbursts, leaving you feeling out of control.
- Racing thoughts: Your mind may feel chaotic, with thoughts racing rapidly. Focusing or concentrating on tasks becomes challenging, as your attention is constantly pulled in different directions.
Hypo-arousal is the other end of the window of tolerance. In this place, you experience a decrease in arousal levels, leading to a state of emotional numbness or disconnection. You may feel as if you are operating on autopilot, disassociated from your own emotions and the world around you.
Recognizing and addressing hypo-arousal is crucial for emotional well-being and overall mental health.
Common signs and symptoms of hypo-arousal:
- Feeling emotionally numb: You may find it challenging to experience or express emotions. It’s as if a protective barrier has been put up, dulling your ability to engage with your feelings fully.
- Fatigue and lack of energy: Hypo-arousal can drain your energy levels, leaving you feeling constantly tired or unmotivated. You may struggle to find the drive to engage in daily activities or pursue hobbies you once enjoyed.
- Difficulty concentrating: Your ability to focus and concentrate may be impaired in a state of hypo-arousal. Staying engaged in tasks or conversations becomes challenging, decreasing productivity and performance.
- Memory problems: Hypo-arousal can impact your memory, making recalling important details or events difficult. You may forget things more frequently or struggle to retain new information.
- Feeling disconnected from others: The emotional disconnection brought on by hypo-arousal can make it challenging to form or maintain meaningful connections with others. It may feel like you are observing life from a distance rather than actively participating.
- Lack of motivation: Hypo-arousal can zap your motivation and enthusiasm for life. Finding enjoyment in activities or setting goals for yourself becomes difficult, leading to a sense of stagnation or feeling stuck.
If left unaddressed, hypo-arousal can significantly impact your overall well-being. It can contribute to feelings of emptiness, isolation, and even depression.
What can narrow or expand your window of tolerance?
If you frequently go back and forth between hypo and hyperarousal, unable to practice stress management effectively, you have a narrow window of tolerance. There is a very small window in which emotions do not feel comfortable or manageable.
This can be due to:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- ACE’s (Adverse Childhood experiences)
- Frequently not feeling heard or seen
- Having your emotions frequently dismissed or invalidated by others
- Lack of support in relationships
- Chronic stress in work or home environments
- Being without basic needs: food, water, housing, social support
- Sleep deprivation or exhaustion
As most of your time and energy are spent striving to feel safe, you lack the energy to face other life stressors.
Your window of tolerance can also vary in different situations or under different conditions. For instance, you might have a wide window for handling strict work deadlines but a narrow one for criticism from colleagues. This discrepancy could be due to past experiences, such as growing up in an environment where criticism was prevalent.
Your window of tolerance can change throughout the day and across different situations or trigger points. As your trauma story differs from everyone else’s, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of what’s “small” or “significant” because it varies from person to person, shaped by their unique life experiences and emotional triggers.
How to open your window of tolerance?
Luckily, as you become more aware of your emotional triggers, you can practice strategies to improve your window of tolerance in day-to-day moments and the long term.
Here are some strategies that can help:
Practicing Deep Breathing:
As slow, deep breaths are associated with calm and easeful situations, they signal to the body that all is well. Deep breathing exercises help regulate the nervous system and reduce arousal levels. Regular diaphragmatic breathing trains your body to remain calm during stressful situations, widening your window of tolerance.
Understand Your Emotional Patterns:
Increasing your self-awareness and understanding your emotional patterns is crucial in widening your tolerance window. Observe how different situations trigger specific emotional responses in you. As you reflect on these patterns, you can identify recurring themes or triggers that need addressing.
The practice of observing your thoughts and sensations without judgment puts you in the “watcher’s” role, which allows you to feel unattached from emotions. This combination can enhance self-awareness and reduce reactivity, fostering a wider window of tolerance.
Engage in Physical Activity:
Regular exercise and physical activity release feel-good hormones, reduce stress and promote emotional regulation. Short-term physical activity gets you into your body and out of your head, providing grounding and stability. As you regularly practice exercise and physical exertion, you become used to dealing with controlled discomfort, which helps widen the window of tolerance.
Cultivate a Safe Environment and Supportive Relationships:
Surround yourself with people who uplift and understand you. As you feel accepted and validated by loved ones, accepting and honoring your emotions becomes easier. Talking with others reduces the weight of thoughts and sensations as they offer new perspectives. A strong support system can provide a sense of security, allowing you to navigate life’s challenges with greater emotional stability.
Seek Professional Support:
In some cases, past traumatic experiences may continue to impact your window of tolerance and emotional regulation. If you find that your efforts to widen your window of tolerance are not yielding the desired results, seeking professional support is crucial. Therapy or counseling can provide a safe space to process trauma, develop coping strategies, and gradually heal. A trained trauma-informed professional can guide you through your journey, helping you build a wider and more resilient window of tolerance.
How does Accelerated Resolution Therapy Help Widen Your Window of Tolerance?
Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) uses eye movements, Gestalt, CBT and brief psychotherapy to expand your window of tolerance and nurture resilience through rescripting, reframing, and positization.
With rescripting, traumatic memories are revisited and restructured, allowing you to rewrite the narrative and disempower their emotional grip. ART also uses reframing, which empowers you to view past experiences from a new perspective, shedding light on growth opportunities within adversity and allowing you to develop more adaptability. Positization infuses positivity into your emotional landscape, reinforcing the belief in your innate strength and ability to overcome challenges. These tools combined enable ART to address trauma and equip you with the skills needed to thrive in the face of life’s trials, fostering a broader window of tolerance and a profound sense of resilience that carries far beyond the therapy room.