The what, why and how of the window of tolerance & 3 ways to practice widening your window of tolerance
What is the window of tolerance?
The “window of tolerance” is a term coined by Dan Seigel, MD. It is defined as: "the optimal zone of 'arousal' for a person to function in everyday life".
It is the autonomic nervous system state in which we can tolerate and function through certain experiences, emotions, and situations.
Being in your window of tolerance does not mean that you’re experiencing only happiness, joy or comfort. We can experience pleasant or unpleasant feelings without moving into a state of distress or triggering of our survival responses (fight, flight, or freeze).
When you are in your window of tolerance you can experience:
Balance of emotions and logic/reason
Sense of safety
Openness and presence
Healthy boundaries (with self and others)
Empathy for self and others
Why is it important to increase your awareness of your window of tolerance?
Knowing our own window of tolerance, and what it feels like to be in (or out of) it gives us the opportunity to tend to our nervous systems needs accordingly.
For example: -Taking a few intentional deep breaths when we are noticing we are feeling anxious. -Setting boundaries by not taking on additional commitments or responsibilities when we are feeling burnt-out. -Calling a friend or family member when we are feeling lonely or sad.
Trauma can shrink our window of tolerance- learning what your window of tolerance feels like, and how to maintain staying within that space can help promote healing from past traumatic experiences.
Your window of tolerance is malleable. There are many ways to practice widening your window of tolerance, but the first step is to become aware of it!
How can widening your window of tolerance serve you?
Having a wider window of tolerance increases your ability to tolerate distress without expressing disproportionate reactions.
When you are in your window of tolerance you are able to be in a state of mindfulness and presence. We are able to learn, work, play and connect with ourselves and those around us.
Often those who have experienced trauma and will experience dissociation or disconnection from the present. Finding ways to anchor into and maintain your window of tolerance can help reduce symptoms of hyper-arousal (such as anxiety, panic, fight/flight) and hypo-arousal (depression, dissociation, numbness).
3 ways to practice widening your window of tolerance:
Name it to tame it: When emotions arise, we try to describe our internal state without having to explain or rationalize whatever we’re feeling. This process promotes integration by strengthening the left side of our brain’s language capabilities and connecting them to the spontaneous and raw emotions on the right side of our brain. This neurological process helps us calm down and feel more balanced.
Grounding through your five senses: By taking a moment to identify what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch you are reorienting to the present by bringing mindfulness awareness to your environment. You can take it a step further by identifying specific things that create a sense of safety or comfort (such a texture that feels soothing, a scented lotion that has a calming quality, a picture that makes you feel happy).
Polyvagal Exercises: Polyvagal theory uses the language of "ventral vagal state" to describe the window of tolerance. Steven Porges developed the Polyvagal Theory and Deb Dana has contributed to designing exercises to help expand the window of tolerance (or experience more time in your ventral vagal state). Some examples of polyvagal exercises include: -Engaging in playful activities -Listening to music -Temperature change- such as splashing cold water on your face, holding an ice cube in your hands, taking a cold shower -Singing or humming. Dancing or other form of movement, -Reminiscing on pleasant experiences (positive memories, memories of feeling safe, connected to others, nurtured, etc.) Learn more about Polyvagal Theory by clicking here
Annabella Lipson is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
She enjoys working with young adults & adults who are dealing with stress, anxiety, grief, PTSD and other challenges.
Annabella helps clients develop healthy communication skills, learn to tolerate and manage uncomfortable emotions and develop insightful decision-making skills.