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  • Natalie Dressler

Understanding Your Window of Tolerance

Have you heard of the window of tolerance? It's a term coined by Daniel Siegel that helps us understand our "window" of being able to stay regulated and feel our emotions/physical states.

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The window of tolerance is a useful guide to know when we are being triggered by something. Understanding how it works can help normalize our experiences in feeling overwhelmed or shut down at some point, as we all have this biological response to threatening environments.

If we didn't experience the ability to fight (anger), flee (anxiety), freeze, or feign death (shut down & dissociate), then we wouldn't be equipped to deal with unsafe situations. Anxiety and hypervigilance allow us to react fast in the face of danger, and shutting down allows us to preserve our resources if under attack.

It's really amazing that our body does this for us!

As great as it is that our body has this hardwired response, it can also create stuck points for us if we've had a number of times that our body has needed to use these responses.

What fires together wires together within our brain. This means, if you felt overwhelmed and needed to use these responses at important times in your life, your brain will be more likely to use them again. This can make it harder to stay calm and work through your feelings as they surface.

For some this will look like depression or feeling stuck in shame when dealing with relationship difficulties or criticism. For others it might look like feeling anxious, wired, or tense when faced with a new person or situation.

Other people may find themselves in addiction, trying to suppress the hyperarousal they feel inside, or by trying to bring themselves up out of a hypoaroused state.

Bringing compassion and understanding of what's going on in our nervous system can help us to be less judgmental when these responses come up.

When we judge the emotional and physical states happening in our body, they often stick around longer and become even more intense and stuck in the long run. Judging tends to activate our nervous system into a further hyperaroused state, which then exacerbates what we're already feeling.

Being able to bring up compassion can have a calming effect on the brain and allow you to experience more of your optimal level of arousal.

To pull this compassion up, try thinking of a time you felt a sense of joy, peace, or just really like yourself. Maybe you were outdoors experiencing nature. Perhaps it was with a friend, laughing and feeling connected. For some it might be right next to a beloved pet, or with their child. When you have an image of this time, start to notice what you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Then notice how this feels in your body. Does this sensation have a colour? Is it hot, cool, or warm? Does it flow easily, or feel expansive? Try to really sense how this feels in your body. Now see if you can bring this energy you feel in your body to the emotion that you were originally judging or uncomfortable with. See if you can feel a small amount of it seep into the areas that don't feel so good (without forcing this).

For some, an exercise like this may feel too overwhelming or flooding. If this is you, working with a counsellor can help you learn how to work with the parts of yourself that might not want to get in touch with how you feel or bring this compassion into your system.

Often, noticing with compassion takes much practice. The more you can do this when you start to leave your window of tolerance, the more your nervous system gets a chance to experience something new. Over time this can increase our window of tolerance and allow us to stay more regulated when we experience something triggering.


Image by Greg Rakozy


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