What is the window of tolerance? In my research about pathological demand avoidance, I stumbled upon the window of tolerance. I was surprised only a few authors spoke of the window of tolerance or even helped one in understanding the window of tolerance. There is great value in learning about it. Therefore, I will discuss the window of tolerance and unpack why it is valuable to anyone’s emotional and mental state.
I realized humans should learn these four facts when understanding and implementing a stress management routine. The four keys to stress management are:
- The window of tolerance
- Nervous System Check-in
What is the window of tolerance?
The window of tolerance is about everyone’s ability to engage with the world socially. It is one’s sense of safety with people and the world around them. It is the parasympathetic mode – ventral vagal. The window of tolerance has to do with our ability and tolerance to:
- How we engage with society and the world
- One’s sense of safety
- Curiosity levels
- Energetic levels
- Sense of connection
- Feeling grounded
- Staying centered and balanced
You have heard me speak of trauma in the past. I have talked about how people react or respond when they have experienced trauma. Why I am discussing trauma here because their tolerance window will shrink or become paper thin when someone undergoes trauma. They become easily startled, irritated, and aggressive. Then others shut down. A person will have no energy, feel fatigued, and are disconnected from the world and people around them.
I just explained hyper-arousal, which mobilizes people into action (fight or flight), and hypo-arousal, where one becomes immobilized and they collapse and fall into helplessness. Hypo-arousal is the flop or freeze trauma response. So, let’s unpack the two because there is a purpose to all of this information.
Understanding the window of tolerance
What is the window of tolerance? Everyone has a window of tolerance. Your window of tolerance is a way of conceptualizing your bandwidth or capacity to tolerate intense emotions. One’s window of tolerance is the optimal zone for one to deal with stress effectively. Stress and trauma tend to shrink one’s window of tolerance. When your tolerance window has shrunk, it can be harder to stay calm and focused under stressful situations and intense emotional states. Therefore, when one is outside their window of tolerance, one can more easily be thrown off balance.
So imagine a window in the middle, and above/below the window are two different states. Above the window of tolerance is a hyper-arousal state (sympathetic nervous system); below the window is a hypo-arousal state (parasympathetic nervous system). When it comes to adapting and processing intense emotions healthily, it is best done within one’s window of tolerance. Here is why.
When one is in the window of tolerance, one can react to stress, anxiety, and intense emotions more effectively because it is significant. But, when one’s window of tolerance has shrunk due to trauma or extreme stress, one will react and respond either in a hypo-arousal or a hyper-arousal state. One will either explode like a volcano or freeze like ice. Think of it as one is hot and one is cold—polar opposites.
Many people understand the purpose of the fight or flight response because it allows one to either fight off the threat or run away from it. This response is necessary and valuable because hyperarousal gives one the energy they need to escape the situation.
The problem is times have changed, and we are not fighting off wild animals. We have seen in the wild how animals will release this extra energy that has built up due to hyperarousal. People have witnessed how dogs shake, bark, or run around to get the extra energy released because it is causing them stress. The animal is not stuffing it down like most humans.
This trapped extra energy must be released healthily, such as dancing, singing, exercising, running, or some other physical exercise. When one releases the extra energy, they will enter back into the window of tolerance. Here are the mental and emotional traits of hyperarousal.
- High energy level
- Reckless behavior
There are hyperarousal physiological traits such as…
- Muscle tension
- Fast heart rate
- High levels of cortisol and adrenaline
- Shallow and quick breaths
- High blood pressure
Understanding hyperarousal can be easy when you think of a volcano. In today’s world, hyperarousal can be challenging to avoid, and here is why. The stressors most people face today are less imminent and more long-term. Instead of being chased by a wild animal, in today’s world, we have to perform well at work, school repeatedly, and sometimes at home, pay all the bills on time, and figure out how to pay off all our debt from college or buy a car.
Our bodies are not designed to deal with this kind of day-to-day stress. When hyperarousal kicks into gear, it is because it is designed to protect us when faced with pressure, but it is not the stress that would require one to fight or run away. Therefore, when this happens, one can quickly get stuck in hyperarousal. Therefore, the energy gets stuck, the stress response becomes frozen in our bodies (trapped energy) because the body cannot complete the stress cycle (releasing the trapped energy).
Understanding hypoarousal is easy when you think of frozen water. When someone is experiencing hypoarousal, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over to shut us down. This happens when we face too much stress or change within the body. Our nervous system will protect us from overwhelming stress and anxiety by shutting a person down.
This response is good because it allows us to play dead in the threat of danger. It could explain why some people faint. Their body cannot handle the overwhelming stress response, and the person can pass out.
Yet, we do not live in a world where we often have to play dead to make a mamma bear leave us alone or faint as we fall off the side of a mountain. Hypoarousal can take over at inconvenient times.
For example, when we are overwhelmed with a big project at work or a deadline, hypoarousal may shut us down and prevent us from being able to work on it. Let’s say you have an important meeting with your boss. Hypoarousal may prevent one from having the courage, energy or motivation to approach them.
Hypoarousal occurs on a spectrum, and someone can have a mild experience, while others can become immobilized and can’t even move. When someone can’t move, this happens in the context of extreme trauma. This can be considered a sensory overload for kids with autism.
For example, my son has extreme hypoarousal. When asked to shower, brush his teeth, get dressed, or go off to school, he will shut down if said the wrong way or he is experiencing high anxiety levels. Therefore, he cannot move. It can take him 30 minutes in the shower just to be able to wash his hair. He knows he has to wash his hair; he cannot do it. His body is frozen, yet his mind is foggy.
Mental and emotional traits of hypoarousal:
- Brain fog
- Low energy
- Lack of focus
- Technology addiction
- Shut down
- Cravings for substances
Hypoarousal Physiological Traits:
- Digestive issues
- Sensitivities to the cold
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shallow and irregular breathing
- Over or under-active immune system
Understanding hypoarousal and hyperarousal
Therefore, hyperarousal means one is in a sympathetic dominant state, and our nervous system turns on to mobilize us into action. It forces us to either move towards the danger to fight it off or to turn away from the threat of danger. Hypoarousal means our parasympathetic nervous system takes over and shuts us down.
How large is your Window of Tolerance?
If you are a parent, you know patience is essential. Your little one is pushing your patience, and you are trying your best not to leave your comfortable tolerance window. People who grew up in traumatic homes where they continuously faced trauma often did not have the opportunity to develop a window of tolerance. They might have little patience and tolerance for little children.
For others, their window of tolerance is paper-thin or almost non-existent, and life is miserable. When one stays in a stressed state, prepared for action, or dulled out to experience less of it, it protects us when our unhealthy environment is chronically traumatizing. That could explain why someone you know within your family is always quick to explode into rage or anger. Another family member might be considered slow, like a snail, and constantly depressed or numb inside.
How to Check-In with your Nervous System
If you want to expand your tolerance window, doing daily nervous system check-ins is recommended. It is also essential to learn how to map your nervous system. Self-observation is the best tool. Once you know how to observe yourself with successful results, you can better support others when they have left their window of tolerance. Here are some tips.
Nervous System Check-Ins
To begin, one should commit or agree with themselves to do the work. Do regular, once or twice-a-day check-ins. I suggest doing it for about 30 days. It does take 30 days for a new behavior to become a habit. To begin, you want to be in a quiet place if possible. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Scan your body and note how you are feeling mentally, emotionally, and any physical sensations. Could you review the list of traits under the hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal list? Are you experiencing any of those traits? Here is an example.
When one can identify that their heart rate has increased, they feel agitated, anxious feelings of worry, fear, or anxiety; this person has entered the hyper-arousal state. At this point, this person should do grounding and calming techniques to move the trapped restless energy out of the body. This person can do breathing exercises as they pace their heart rate.
How to Check-In with your Nervous System
Moving on, When someone is feeling brain fog, disconnection, lack of energy, and no display of emotions, this person may choose to go outside and walk quickly. Some people splash cold water on their face to wake themselves up and get grounded again.
To enhance this experience, I like to look at a picture of a quiet, peaceful, calming place in nature. I want to teleport myself into the image and take a mini escape vacation from the chaotic world. Others can listen to calming meditation music or a guided relaxation imagery audio recording. This allows me to return to my window of tolerance.
So, when experiencing hyper-arousal, they want to focus on grounding and calming techniques. When experiencing hypo-arousal, they want to focus on stimulating the body to get the stagnant energy moving again. One can practice yoga or briefly step outside to breathe the crisp morning air. Even feeling the sunlight on your skin can be very soothing. All these tips can support one in returning to their window of tolerance.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post about understanding the window of tolerance. The next two blog posts will be interviews. Enjoy!