What comes to your mind when you think of resilience?
Perseverence, maybe? How about grit? Or maybe toughing it out?
But resilience is so much more than this. There’s another rich and exciting side to it that’s often ignored.
Did you know that resilience is largely about the nervous system and not just mindset? It’s the body’s stress response and its ability to remain in a healthy range of arousal and settling without getting stuck in an over or under-activated state.
And the sweet spot in between these two states is called your Window of Tolerance.
By understanding your Window of Tolerance, you’ll be able to consciously regulate your nervous system, better manage your stress and anxiety levels, have more mastery over emotions like fear, panic, anger or depression and significantly improve your resilience in stressful and challenging situations.
Simply, you’ll be able to maximize your work or study performance, experience more joy and longer moments of calm throughout your days.
What is the Window of Tolerance?
The Window of Tolerance, coined by Dr Dan Siegel, describes the optimal zone of arousal in which we’re able to function most effectively. When we’re within this zone, we’re typically able to readily process what’s going on around us and respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty.
It’s the zone in which we remain calm and composed under stress. We’re able to reflect, think rationally, and make balanced decisions without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn. And we’re open and receptive to life.
This is like that Goldilocks state of being where everything is just right. Not too much stress so we’re spinning out but not too little so we’re lethargic and bored out of our minds.
Everything is just smooth sailing.
Losing balance and slipping out of your Window of Tolerance
However, when we experience too much arousal – in times of extreme stress or trauma – we slip out of our Window of Tolerance. And we become hyper- or hypo-aroused. Goodbye rational thinking, goodbye wise equanimity, goodbye flexibility and hello emotional dysregulation!
What is Hyper-arousal?
When we’re hyper-aroused our fight-or-flight response is triggered and we go into a heightened state of activation. More energy is being made available for the body to use as a survival strategy. And our nervous system suddenly kicks into high alert, even when danger might not be present. For example, at the thought of having to do a presentation at work or running late for a meeting.
- Tight muscles
- Emotional overwhelm
- Angry outbursts
When we frequently operate in this mode it can feel like we’re constantly stuck in “go” with no “off” button. This can lead to difficulty sleeping, concentrating effectively, irritability and managing our emotions well.
What is Hypo-arousal?
Hypo-arousal is also known as the “shutdown”, “freeze” or “collapse” response. It’s when we go from “I can” to “I can’t”. We slip into this state when we have too much hyper-arousal. It surpasses the emotional overwhelm our brain and/or body is able to tolerate. The body’s releasing too much energy for us to comfortably handle. And it causes us to plunge into a state of shutting down or even dissociating.
Like hyper-arousal, it can often be triggered by severe stress, feeling threatened (real or imagined), traumatic memories, or feeling emotions associated with past trauma.
- Blank stare
- Struggle to speak
Narrow vs. wide Window of Tolerance & its effect on mental health
We can have a narrow or a wide Window of Tolerance.
If you have a narrow Window of Tolerance, you may feel like your emotions are intense and difficult to manage. If you have a wider one, you’re able to handle more pressure and deal with activating emotions and situations without feeling like your ability to function has been significantly impacted.
A narrowed Window of Tolerance may cause you to perceive danger more readily. So you regularly react to real and imagined threats with a fight/flight/freeze response, which taxes your nervous system. You’re also more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and dissociation as a result.
How would it feel driving in a car with no suspension whatsoever vs. in one with the world’s best suspension?
With no suspension, you’d feel every little bump and pothole in the road making for an incredibly uncomfortable and painful journey. With good suspension, you’d comfortably breeze over these same bumps and potholes, barely noticing them as you think to yourself, “Wow, what a gift it is to be alive”.
This is the difference between a narrow vs. wider Window of Tolerance as we journey through life.
Managing and widening the Window of Tolerance
To widen your Window of Tolerance, you want to develop your resilience. This increases your capacity to experience intense emotions and stress without becoming dysregulated. And if you do lose your composure, it allows you to better self-regulate and quickly restore a sense of emotional and psychological balance.
If you’re reading this and thinking you’re doomed because you have a narrow Window of Tolerance, here’s some good news…
Regardless of whether you were born with a narrow Window of Tolerance, suffered trauma or are pretty stress-resilient already, you can always widen it. Here’s how:
1. Recognise your Window of Tolerance
Practice becoming aware of when you’re in your Window of Tolerance. When are you most calm and centered? Who are you with? What state is your mind in? How does your body feel? It’ll become a lot easier to notice when you’re slipping out of it as you become more familiar with it.
2. Become aware of the signs that you’re slipping out of it.
When you recognize what you’re experiencing is a little off, stop and pause for a moment. Focus your thoughts and pay attention to the emotional and physical responses of your body. What are you feeling? What’s triggering this? How is your body reacting?
Notice what symptoms are arising. Are they symptoms of hyper- or hypo-arousal? You can use the lists above to help you with this process. Keep bringing your focus back to your body and the sensations that are arising within it instead of spiraling out with the thoughts about the situation. This will prevent you from becoming more aroused or activated and allow you to better self-soothe and self-regulate.
3. Learn techniques for re-regulating when experiencing hypo-arousal or hyper-arousal.
What are some practical things you can do to bring yourself back into your Window of Tolerance when you’re hyper- or hypo-aroused? Become familiar with several effective tactics to help you self-regulate in the moment. With a bit of practice and patience, they’ll eventually become second nature to you. I really struggled with this at first but it does become easier and much more impactful with a little persistence.
4. Widen your window of tolerable emotions.
Improve your ability to handle activating emotions when they arise. You can do this through direct exposure to these uncomfortable emotions and situations that trigger them, take up a practice that expands your self-awareness, increase the frequency and intensity of positive emotions throughout your days and continue practicing your self-regulating skills. One sure-fire way NOT to do it is to avoid challenges, discomfort and situations that trigger your activating emotions. If you suffer from a severe trauma this is best done with a trained professional who can guide and support you as you challenge your triggers.
7 Techniques & practices to widen your window of tolerance
The most effective way to widen your Window of Tolerance is to build your mental strength and emotional resilience.
Here are 7 practices you can do by yourself that will help you develop your resilience and learn how to become more aware of when you’re slipping out of your Window of Tolerance, better self-regulate under stress and significantly improve your tolerance to intense emotions.
- Cold water therapy. It will stimulate your nervous system and get you back into your Window of Tolerance after a nice long plunge. It will also help you learn how to remain balanced under physical and psychological challenge. This, in turn, expands your tolerance to discomfort.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise has a massive positive impact on the mind and body. It’s possibly the most underutilized antidepressant. It releases a cocktail of feel-good hormones which flood your brain and body. And in a very short time, leaves you feeling stronger, calmer, happier, more confident, energised and even attractive. It’s also a great way to learn how to embrace discomfort and persevere when you feel like giving up most.
- Regular mindfulness practice. Tune into yourself – with curiosity rather than criticism – to become more aware of your triggers. Knowing your triggers is the first step to managing them, rather than being a victim to them. With regular meditation or mindfulness practice you are less reactive and better protected against the physiological effects of stress. This works wonders when it comes to expanding your Window of Tolerance and regulating your emotions in the moment.
- Coaching. Having a safe space to process and deal with the impact of stress and difficult memories on your everyday life with a professional counselor, psychologist or coach can help you significantly broaden your Window of Tolerance. With the right person, you can become more aware of your triggers, unhealthy coping mechanisms, improve your relationship with stress and your ability to emotionally self-regulate.
- Build a strong support network. Generally, we are better able to stay within our Window of Tolerance when we feel safe and supported. Positive relationships are also one of the foundational elements that support resilience. So regularly connect with friends and family you enjoy spending time with. And to make new friends consider joining a community group or volunteering with an NGO.
- Breathwork. Deep breathing from your belly helps to ground you and bring you back to yourself if you feel you’re being triggered. There are many different techniques to bring about different outcomes but here’s a simple and effective one to help you calm your nervous system. Inhale through the nose for a count of 4 and then exhale through the mouth for a count of 5. Do this for a few minutes. The longer out-breath will help to calm you and if you switch it around, a longer in-breath will stimulate you. Regular breathwork, even when you’re not feeling triggered, improves your ability to stay calm and balanced in stressful situations.
- Self-care. A healthy self-care routine helps to decompress and sooth your nervous system. This aids the body and mind in recovering from periods of activity and stress. Without it, we are lot more susceptible to stress and more likely to experience burnout and emotional dysregulation.
13 Weeks to a fired-up, mentally stronger, more in control and resilient you!
For more research-based strategies you can use to widen your Window of Tolerance and bring yourself back from hypo-aroused and hyper-aroused states, check out our program, Ultimate Resilience. We do a deep dive into the different ways you can improve nervous system regulation and significantly improve your resilience to stress and challenge. Discover deeper meaning and purpose, learn how to overcome many of the symptoms related to depression and anxiety and live with less stress, more peace, happiness and an unshakeable sense of confidence in your ability to overcome anything life sends your way. Click here to find out more.