Window of Tolerance
Author: Justine Rickard M.A.
Our Window of Tolerance refers to the space in which we function optimally. Within our window we are able to access flexibility, creativity, problem solving skills, rational thought, and emotional reasoning, among other skills. This allows us to deal with big emotions and the challenges life presents in a healthy and adaptive way. With increased stress - whether through trauma, stressful life events, eating disorders, mental health issues, etc. - and a lack of resources and/or adaptive strategies, this space becomes smaller and smaller, making it much easier for us to get pushed outside this window and into emotional dysregulation.
Emotional regulation refers to our ability to stay present, engaged, calm, and grounded in our emotional experiences - to stay within our Window of Tolerance. Developing emotional regulation skills allows us to approach challenges with openness, curiosity, and flexibility, as we learn that we are safe and capable of handling whatever emotions may arise. When we are faced with challenges and emotions that exceed our ability to tolerate (i.e., getting pushed outside our window), we end up activating our body’s stress response system - either hyperarousal (fight or flight) or hypoarousal (freeze). Sometimes this can feel like a switch has been flipped, that you have no warning between the stimulus (e.g., stressful situation, disturbing thought) and the response (e.g., hypoarousal, hyperarousal). This can lead to feeling very helpless and powerless to our body’s reactions to stressors. What we want to work on is developing our ability to recognize warning signs - when we start to feel dysregulated - in order to know when to apply strategies that help us to pause and come back into our window of tolerance. This helps us to change course before our “lid is flipped” and we become fully activated in hyperarousal or shutdown in hypoarousal.
Strategies and Resources for Regulation
When you are experiencing more hyperarousal (fight/flight) energy…
Slow, deep breathing
Holding an ice cube in your hand, wrist, or back of neck and letting it melt
Reach out to a safe person
Progressive muscle relaxation
When you are experiencing more hypoarousal (freeze)…
Upbeat, powerful and/or loud music
Gargling with water
Eating a snack, pay attention to taste, texture, temperature, etc.
Stand up, change environment, step outside
Identify and give name to what you are experiencing