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Understanding the Window of Tolerance Concept Can Help With Emotional Regulation

This morning at 7 am, my 3-year-old melted down when I apologetically told her I didn’t have any more of her favorite frozen waffles for her breakfast.

She immediately ran from the kitchen into the hallway and flung herself onto the wooden floor, pajama’d legs kicking in protest, fists bunched up, braids framing her red, distraught face and she screamed at me, “That’s not fair! That’s NOT fair!”

She had experienced something so upsetting that her toddler emotional regulation system (still in its early days of development) simply could not handle.

She was outside of her Window of Tolerance.

Now, if you’re reading this essay, you might be chuckling at her “over-reaction” or even remembering the days when your own toddlers thought the world was ending (because you didn’t cut the crusts off their toast or because you served their food on the blue plate versus the red plate, etc.).

And really, it’s unlikely you will have the same response as my toddler did if someone tells you that you’ve run out of frozen waffles, but still, the concept of being in or outside your Window of Tolerance applies to all of us and you inevitably have your own adult version of the frozen waffle trigger.  No matter what our age, no matter what the trigger, the concept of the Window of Tolerance is so important and so critical to foster to support our overall mental health.

What is the Window of Tolerance?

The Window of Tolerance is a term and concept coined by the esteemed psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, MD – clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute – that describes the optimal emotional “zone” we can exist in, to best function and thrive in everyday life.

On either side of the “optimal zone” there are two other zones – the hyper-arousal zone and the hypo-arousal zone.

The Window of Tolerance – the optimal zone – is characterized by a sense of groundedness, flexibility, openness, curiosity, presence, an ability to be emotionally regulated, and a capacity to tolerate life’s stressors.

If this Window of Tolerance is eclipsed, if you experience internal or external stressors that cause you to move beyond and outside of your Window of Tolerance, you may find yourself existing in either a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state.

Hyper-arousal is an emotional state characterized by high energy, anger, panic, irritability, anxiety, hypervigilance, overwhelm, chaos, fight or flight instincts and startle response (to name but a few characteristics).

Hypo-arousal is, by contrast, an emotional state characterized by shutting down, numbness, depressiveness, withdrawal, shame, flat affect and disconnection (to name but a few characteristics).

(Side note: Visually, I like to imagine the Window of Tolerance as a river: the water flowing through the middle is the Window of Tolerance, but the bank to the left is hyper-arousal and the bank to the right is hypo-arousal. The goal is to stay in the flow of the water and avoid crashing into the banks on either side.)

My toddler, upon learning that she couldn’t have her beloved frozen waffles for breakfast this morning, was faced with a stressor so big that it pushed her into hyper-arousal – she was so upset that she had to literally run away from me to discharge the energy in her body and she expressed her anger and overwhelm by beating the hallway floor with her fists and feet.

She had crashed into a proverbial riverbank and was no longer in the flow of the river.

Why is the Window of Tolerance so important?

Put plainly, existing within the Window of Tolerance is what allows us to move functionally and relationally through the world.

When we’re within our Window of Tolerance, we have access to our prefrontal cortex and our executive functioning skills (for instance: organizing, planning, and prioritizing complex tasks; starting actions and projects and staying focused on them to completion; regulating emotions and practicing self-control; practicing good time management, etc.).

Having access to our prefrontal cortex and executive functions equips us to work, be in relationship, and problem solve effectively as we move through the world, despite encountering hiccups, disappointments and challenges along the way.

When we are outside The Window of Tolerance, we lose access to our prefrontal cortex and executive functioning skills and may default to taking panicked, reckless action, or no action at all. We may be prone to self-sabotaging behaviors, gravitating toward patterns and choices that erode and undermine our relationship to ourselves, others and the world.

Clearly, then, it’s ideal to stay inside the Window of Tolerance to best support ourselves in living the most functional, healthy life possible.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all of us – at every age from the moment we’re born to the moment we die – eclipse our Window of Tolerance and find ourselves in a non-ideal emotional regulation zone sometimes.

That’s normal and that’s natural.

So the goal here is not that we never eclipse our Window of Tolerance – I personally and professionally think that that’s unrealistic.

Rather, the goal is to increase our Window of Tolerance and to grow our capacity to “rebound and be resilient” — coming back to the Window of Tolerance quickly and effectively when we find ourselves outside of it.

How do we increase our Window of Tolerance?

So how do we increase our Window of Tolerance? First, I want to acknowledge that the Window of Tolerance is subjective. We each have a unique and distinct window depending on multitudinous biopsychosocial variables: our personal histories and whether or not we came from childhood trauma backgrounds, our temperaments, our social supports, our physiology, etc..

Windows of Tolerance are, in so many ways, like a proverbial snowflake: no two will ever look exactly the same. Mine may not look the same as yours and so forth. Because of this, I want to honor and acknowledge that those who come from relational trauma histories may find that they have smaller Windows of Tolerance than their peers who come from non-trauma backgrounds.

Those of us with childhood abuse histories may, too, find that we are more frequently and easily triggered and pushed outside of the optimal emotional regulation zone into hyper- or hypo-arousal. This is normal and this is natural given what we’ve lived through.

And everyone on the planet – whether or not they come from a relational trauma history or not – will need to work and effort to support themselves staying inside the Window of Tolerance and practicing resiliency when they find themselves outside of it.

It just may mean that those with relational trauma histories may have to work harderlonger and more deliberately at this. So again, recognizing that our Windows of Tolerance are unique and we all need to invest effort into staying inside of it, how do we do this?

In my personal and professional experience, this work is two-fold:

First, we provide ourselves with the foundational biopsychosocial elements that contribute to a healthy, regulated nervous system.

And two, we work to cultivate and call upon a wide toolbox of tools when we find ourselves outside of our Window of Tolerance (which, again, is inevitable). To the first part of the work – providing ourselves with the foundational biopsychosocial elements that contribute to a healthy, regulated nervous system – this entails:

  • Providing our body with supportive self-care: getting enough sleep, getting enough exercise, eating nutritious foods, refraining from substances that erode our health, attending to emergent medical needs.
  • Providing our mind with supportive experiences: this may include adequate amounts of stimulation, adequate amounts of focus and engagement, adequate amounts of rest and spaciousness and play.
  • Providing our spirit and soul with supportive experiences: of being in connected relationship, of being connected to something bigger than ourselves (this could be spirituality but can also be nature).
  • Tending to our physical environment to set ourselves up for success: Living and working in places and ways that reduce stressors instead of increasing them, designing the external environments of our lives to be as nourishing (versus depleting) as possible.

The second part of the work – cultivating and calling upon a wide toolbox of tools when we find ourselves outside of our Window of Tolerance – is how we practice resiliency and rebound when we find ourselves in hyper- or hypo-arousal zones.

We do this work by developing practices, habits, tools, and internalized and externalized resources that help soothe, regulate, redirect and ground ourselves.

I focus heavily in my work with my therapy clients and online course students to help them cultivate a wide, diverse, rich and effective toolbox of resources they can use to practice resiliency when outside of their Windows of Tolerance. And while detailing the breadth and specifics of all of these tools is beyond the scope of this essay, I’ll share that these tools are both internal and external in nature, multisensory, and designed to support my clients when they’re by themselves, or at work being watched by others, or in literally any other situation or environment.

For a sampling of potential tools, feel free to explore this essay I wrote years ago that went somewhat viral. See which among these tools you might like to add to your own Window of Tolerance resilience toolbox!

Wrapping This Up.

So how did I help my toddler move back into her Window of Tolerance this morning? First, I affirmed and validated her feelings, helping her feel seen and acknowledged for her big feelings. And then, when this experience of being seen and accepted lowered her reactivity even fractionally and she was able to hear me again, I invited her to make eggs with me (she gets so excited about cracking open eggs!).

Clinically speaking, I redirected her and engaged her prefrontal cortex in an activity, allowing her nervous system to regulate further.

After all of this, I’m happy to say that we ended up having a great breakfast of scrambled eggs with no more tears before preschool drop-off. With my daughter, as with all of us, the goal isn’t to keep her from ever feeling disappointed (she’d be poorly set up for real-life if my husband and I treated her with kid gloves, hustling to make sure she never experienced disappointment in her life!).

Instead, the goal is to help her nervous system learn, over time, that she can tolerate more and more age-appropriate disappointments (increasing her Window of Tolerance) and equip her with tools and strategies to help herself get back to her Window of Tolerance so that she can move forward and on with her day (resiliency and rebounding).

And now I’d love to hear from you:

What are one or two tools that you personally use when you find yourself outside of your Window of Tolerance and in hyper-arousal? Similarly, what are one or two tools that you personally use when you find yourself outside of your Window of Tolerance and in hypo-arousal?

Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message.

And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

Image via contributor

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