Understanding Your Window of Tolerance

Imagine you are walking down a street in your neighbourhood. If you were to stop and ask ten different people what the biggest mental health challenges are we face today, the response would likely be quick, and generally consistent, “anxiety and depression.” These terms have become ubiquitous in our conversations around mental health. As stigma around mental health continues to decrease, it finally feels safe to admit that we are struggling. The words anxiety or depression can serve as blanket terms to explain the disorganized and overwhelming emotions, sensations and thoughts within. 

However, if you were to ask the same individuals on the street where depression and anxiety originate, or how we come to acquire these symptoms or diagnoses – the responses would quickly become varied and diverse. How can we use our limited language and frameworks to begin to unpack the complex rollercoasters of emotion? 

Several years ago, I learned about a simple framework which helps make these abstract terms a little easier to understand. The “Window of Tolerance”, a term first coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, has been one of my most frequent go-to tools for teaching clients about what is happening in their brains and bodies when they experience anxiety or depression (or in many cases, both). Along with understanding what is happening now, it can help us understand what happened in the past when our symptoms developed, and it gives hope for tangible and concrete ways to begin to work with our bodies and emotions towards change and stabilization for the future.

It is important to note that your overwhelming emotions and responses are not wild or irrational, but are often perfectly reasonable responses to the events and circumstances in your story, both historically and in the present. Secondly, the responses and emotions you feel are not abstract feelings that you can erase or change on a whim, but are often physiological responses deeply embedded within your body and nervous systems.

Imagine your nervous system looks something like this:

The bending line through the middle represents your nervous system response – it goes up and down, but it generally stays within the top and bottom boundaries of the “window.” The top line of this image represents your sympathetic nervous system response – or as it’s commonly known, the fight or flight response. When you cross this threshold, your sympathetic response is activated. This initiates a flood of stress hormones from the brain and a cascade of changes throughout the body. Heart rate increases, respiration becomes more shallow and rapid, and even digestion and circulation are impacted. In the body, this can feel like being keyed up, tense, hyper-vigilant, or can cause a general feel of panic. Simply put, when we are operating within our sympathetic response, we feel anxious. Anxiety, while being deeply impacted by our thoughts and emotion, is also a profoundly physical response.   

On the flip side, the bottom line in the diagram represents our parasympathetic response kicking into high gear; also known as the “freeze” response. In this place, we can experience a lack of energy, a sense of disconnection from self and others, and numbness to our emotions. When we spend a long time crossed over into this threshold of hypo-arousal, it can begin to look a lot like depression. 

Within a healthy functioning nervous system, we are able to regulate our responses. For example, if you get cut off in traffic suddenly, your sympathetic response kicks in. You feel the panic rising and your heart rate increases. But, you continue to listen to music, arrive safely at your destination and the tension dissipates. Once again, you have regulated your response and the line moves back down within your “window.” Or perhaps you are having an “off” day and you decide to watch Netflix, zone out, and eat some take-out on the sofa. You feel tuned out to the world around you and don’t feel like responding to texts or emails. However, your partner or roommate is having a crisis and asks for your support. You are able to quickly gather yourself and respond in an empathetic way, and exit the “numb” place voluntarily. Once again, you are able to regulate yourself back into your window.

When we experience stressful or traumatic events, our window of tolerance can be altered in two different ways.

First, our window can shrink. The space in which we are able to feel regulated (attuned and grounded, feeling safe and connected) becomes smaller, and we more easily find ourselves dysregulated – that is, in a state of hyper-arousal (anxiety) or hypo-arousal (depression).

Second, we can find it harder to regulate ourselves within the window. That is, we find ourselves in a sustained place of fight, flight or freeze for longer periods of time – in effect, the symptoms of feeling anxious or depressed become generalized and more pervasive. We can feel stuck turned “on” – buzzing with anxiety; or stuck turned “off”- numb and depressive.

It can be helpful to understand that in some ways, our fight, flight or freeze responses are two sides of the same coin. Both are the response of our nervous system to stress, fear or overwhelming situations. 

So how do we begin to work with a window of tolerance which feels small, or a nervous system stuck “on” or “off” when the circumstances no longer warrant it? There are entire books and texts on this topic, but I think there are insights that can give us tools we can access right away. Both are stress responses related to fear, and fear is often exacerbated by isolation. So then, what can help you to feel safe and connected? I have broken this down into three parts:

  1. Safely Connected to God. It can feel hard to reach out to God when dysregulated. I often encourage clients to pair deep-breathing exercises with prayer as a way to settle their nervous system and spirit. Scripture can be another way to stay grounded. Psalm 18:2 is a beautiful example of safe and steady connection: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Use your imagination to paint a picture of what a safe stronghold might look like, and prayerfully enter that space.
  2. Safely Connected to Others. Be aware of the effects of isolation. Facing stressful events and overwhelming emotions alone will almost always make the feelings more intense. Now more than ever, in this season of COVID, it is important to stay connected to the relationships that bring us support and safety. A walk, FaceTime call, or a handmade gift with a doorstep visit are a handful of ways to maintain strong bonds even when it is hard. 
  3. Safely Connected to Self. Rather than stuffing down strong emotions, try to meet them with curiosity and compassion. When you feel yourself beginning to move into the space of fight, flight or freeze – try to slow down and put your finger on the emotion that is pushing you out of your window. Can you name the emotion and why it is there? As we name our emotional experiences, it can begin to feel less overwhelming and chaotic. This increases our capacity to sit with strong emotions, and not have them push us out of our window of tolerance.

There are a wide range of tools and ways you can begin to work with your thoughts, emotions and body to begin to expand your window of tolerance – and work with your counsellor can help you begin to understand why you may be feeling “stuck” in a place of anxiety or depression, and how to gently begin to work to understand your responses and change them. 

2 thoughts on “Understanding Your Window of Tolerance”

  1. Really appreciated this illustration of the window of tolerance. I’ve read it over a couple of times and can see that my window has gotten smaller and I am definitely stuck in the hyper vigilant state. Thank you for giving the visual to help with the explanation.

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