During times of stress, we can find it hard to regulate our emotions. While we all handle stress differently, for some people, the effects of stressful triggers can be overwhelming. If you often find it challenging to regulate your emotional response in stressful situations, and find yourself becoming dysregulated, it could have a lot to do with your window of tolerance.
The window of tolerance is a concept developed by Dr. Dan Siegel in his book, The Developing Mind. When you're within your window of tolerance, you're better able to cope with stressors and triggers, whereas when you're outside of your window or zone of tolerance you may experience hyperarousal or hypoarousal and struggle to manage the impact of emotions and everyday stressors.
So what exactly is the window of tolerance, and how can you stay within your window, widen your window, and find more effective ways to cope?
The window of tolerance is a concept that describes the optimal zone of arousal in order for a person to function in their everyday life. When someone is operating within this window or zone, they're able to effectively manage and cope with stressors and the emotions that arise from those stressors. The word "arousal" simply refers to the physiological state of readiness or general state of excitation of one’s nervous system.
When you're inside your window of tolerance, you can function optimally and you're able to take in information or respond to experiences without shutting down or feeling overwhelmed. Each individual has their own window and their own baseline within that window.
People with wide windows of tolerance are able to think clearly and function effectively in a wider range of experiences and with a wider range and severity of stressors. On the other hand, people with a more narrow window of tolerance may struggle with emotional regulation, even in the face of similar stressors.
People who have experienced trauma or otherwise struggle with their mental health may find it difficult to regulate emotions and their window of tolerance can be quite narrow. Some conditions that may be associated with emotion dysregulation can include post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders and other complex trauma-related disorders, substance use disorders, and some anxiety and dysthymic disorders.
For people living with trauma or struggling with their mental health, the stress of a memory or trigger, even when it seems insignificant to others, can push them out of their window of tolerance and lead to a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
Hyperarousal is a physiological response to stress, also called acute stress response or fight-flight-freeze response. It’s one of three sets of criteria used to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder.
When you're experiencing hyperarousal, you're in a heightened state of arousal. Your nervous system kicks into high alert whether an actual danger is present or not. People experiencing hyperarousal can be triggered by their emotions, traumatic memories, or perceived threats. They might also feel like they're not in control of their emotions or actions.
Symptoms of hyperarousal include exaggerated startle response, disturbed sleep, difficulty concentrating or remembering, and excessive vigilance. In a hyperaroused state, people might have angry outbursts, fear, anxiety, emotional overwhelm, panic, muscle tightness, and other physical stress responses.
People who experience hyperarousal often feel like they're stuck in that hyperaroused state. They might end up lashing out, struggling to sleep, or feeling like they're too wired to concentrate.
Hypoarousal is the opposite of hyperarousal; instead of feeling overly aroused, people experiencing hypoarousal feel as if they have shut down or dissociated.
Behaviorally, hypoarousal may be observed as under-responsiveness to stimuli and one’s environment, for example, as lethargy, inattention, apathy, or boredom. People experiencing hypoarousal might feel depression, numbness, emptiness, physical weakness, dissociation, or the inability to move, respond, or speak.
Hyperarousal and hyperarousal are two different responses to what are often the same triggers: traumatic memories, stressors, or feeling threatened even when there is nothing overtly threatening happening.
It is important to remember that our window of tolerance can change from day to day, or even moment to moment. For example, feeling tired, hungry, or sick often narrows our window. But when you're within your window of tolerance, you're able to operate optimally.
You might be able to understand and reinforce your boundaries and understand the boundaries of others. You might be able to feel empathy toward others, experience and process your thoughts and your emotions simultaneously, be aware of the present moment and grounded in the here and now, react in ways that make sense for the situation you're in, be able to tolerate your feelings, be curious and open to experiences and ideas and people rather than defensive or judgmental of others, and feel safe.
Moving back into your window of tolerance from a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal can be difficult. If you're easily pushed outside of your window of tolerance, it might mean that you've undergone some sort of trauma or are struggling with your mental health in some way, and it makes total sense that this would be hard.
The first step is to understand that it's okay that this is hard for you. You're not lacking in any way. You also deserve the support and care you need in order to cope, learn to re-regulate, and learn how to widen your window.
When it comes to hyperarousal, it can be helpful to use techniques that settle and ground you. On the other hand if you experience hypoarousal, it might make more sense to engage in activities that stimulate and activate you. The most important thing is that you do techniques that work for you and your specific situation.
When we move into states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal, we can often feel like we've lost touch with the present moment. Using grounding techniques to settle you in the here and now can help.
Breathwork can be calming or energizing depending on your needs. Breathing can be a kind of grounding technique that centers you in the here and now, it can move your thoughts from painful memories to peace, and it can help you pay attention to your physical body.
For many people, exercise and other forms of movement can help reduce stress and the physical symptoms stress can trigger. For some, positive effects of exercise and movement can include alleviating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and burnout, improved concentration and memory, improved sleep, and raised energy levels.
If you experience hypoarousal, getting active and moving your body, such as on a walk, or stimulating your senses in a different way, such as aromatherapy or even petting a furry loved one, can be a way to move you from your hyperarousal state back into your window of tolerance.
If you're experiencing hyperarousal, it might sound counterintuitive to engage in an activity, but movement can ground you in your body and an activity such as a calm walk can help settle your mind.
When we are constantly pushed into hyperarousal and hyperarousal states, it's not our fault; childhood experiences, our environment, trauma, our ability to self-regulate emotions, and our mental health conditions can all impact our window of tolerance. And that’s a lot for anyone to handle on their own. Therapy can be a safe and supportive way to process those feelings and events and your therapist can even help you learn how to widen your window of tolerance.
For people who are easily pushed out of their window of tolerance, it might feel impossible to be able to widen it. But there are techniques you can learn to broaden your window of tolerance and increase your capacity to experience stress without becoming dysregulated.
The first step to widen your window of tolerance is to reduce any shame you might feel around your window of tolerance, your past experiences, and your ability to regulate your emotions. The width of your window of tolerance and how easily you become dysregulated are due to a number of factors. With help and support you may be able to widen your window and find more effective ways to cope.
The next step is increasing your awareness about how wide your window currently is. Checking our level of arousal can help manage mood and stress and help us feel in control. The more you check in with yourself, the more you build self-awareness about your feelings. This can help you implement self-care strategies to keep yourself within your window and widen your window. When do you experience emotions that push you outside of your window of tolerance? How does it make you feel and what's the impact? What is your response when you are outside your zone of tolerance? Is there anything that brings you back into your zone of tolerance?
You can also take the techniques that bring you back into your window of tolerance and engage in those on a regular basis. The idea is to have these coping strategies in place so that when we experience stressful situations or triggers we can practice our coping strategies in a more preventive way. This can help us begin to tolerate triggers, stressors, and emotions and begin to re-regulate ourselves before we move into more heightened states of hypoarousal or hyperarousal.
Everyone experiences stress and we all have times when we don't respond to stressors in the most effective way. But if you find yourself becoming dysregulated on a very regular basis, find it hard to cope with everyday stressors, or have experienced trauma or other mental health struggles, learning to regulate your emotions, thoughts, and stress on your own can be hard—but a therapist can help.
Your therapist will be able to explain what is going on when you feel dysregulated and explore different strategies with you to help you come back into your window of tolerance when you feel dysregulated. Even the tips that we suggested above are general, and what helps regulate one person might not work for another person. A therapist will be able to tailor strategies and treatments specifically for you and your situation.
Experiencing hyperarousal and hyperarousal can make therapy itself difficult, because the things you discuss in therapy sessions might be triggers themselves. An experienced and dedicated mental health care provider will be able to give you the support you need.
If you're dealing with a narrow window of tolerance and often feel dysregulated, especially if you've experienced past trauma, find a therapist who could give you the care you deserve.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.