The window of tolerance is a great guide to understanding where we are in terms of our level of stress and what we need to do to get back into our optimum operating zone...
The window of tolerance is a concept developed by Professor Dan Siegal, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, to describe how we all have a zone in which we are able to operate efficiently, safely and calmly, i.e. our window in which we can tolerate what is going on and go about our day reasonably comfortably and with ease. However, pretty often, we can move in and out of this zone and start to experience the symptoms of what we associate with stress.
What does the window look like?
Here you can see how, when we are triggered (which can be an internal or external trigger), we will move outside of our window of tolerance. It's normal for this to happen, and in fact we need these mechanisms in place to protect us. Having access to the responses that kick in when we feel threatened is important. The fight/flight physiological response is also important in spurring us on when we are facing a challenge or something which is outside of our comfort zone but would be good for us to overcome.
However, the nature of our human brain (it's an over thinker and analyser!) can add worries and stress to things which might not actually be threatening, or not as threatening as we are perceiving it. Sometimes our stress state may become so chronic that our body stops pumping out everything to push through it all, and instead starts to shut down to conserve the energy. This can lead us to feeling hypo-aroused; shut down, withdrawn and not having any energy.
“Remember, it's normal for us to move out of our window of tolerance, especially when faced with new things or challenges, in fact the system is there to spur us on with the adrenaline...”
Being able to take a step back and recognise where we are in terms of our window of tolerance can help to guide us with what we need. It helps us to understand that we are operating a certain way because we are outside of our comfort zone and our body is reacting accordingly. It's not our fault, but by being mindful and paying attention, we can do something about it.
So what can we do about it?
When you are hyper-aroused (i.e. fight/flight) it is useful to focus on strategies that can engage the calming side of your nervous system. Grounding involves bringing your attention to the present; often when we are hyperaroused, our mind is running a million miles hour and can feel chaotic. Grounding using the senses can be something as simple as paying attention to: 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. And describe these to yourself to really make sure you focus on being present with your senses in the here and now.
A focus on breath and slowing it down can also be helpful; see if you can breathe out for slightly longer than you breathe in. For example, breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6, this has a soothing effect on our nervous system.
Engaging with a calming visualisation can also help to re-establish some status quo in the nervous system. Our brain responds to whatever we engage our senses in, even if it is not really happening. When we connect with any memory which has a strong emotion attached to it; our brain sets off the same chemical reactions as when it happened. If you can really connect to a visualisation and try to engage all of your senses then your brain will respond accordingly and begin to calm the system.
It can also be helpful to act on the hyper energy to help it move through the system; for example doing some vigourous exercise, going for a run. But following this, try to engage in a soothing activity such as grabbing yourself a hot drink and taking a bit of time out to re-set.
Hypo-arousal tends to happen more when our nervous system has been chronically activated and the body is reading this as fight/flight not getting the result needed as it still feels under threat. The body then shuts down and conserves energy. It can feel like a trapped, helpless feeling. This can happen when we are under chronic stress, trying to juggle so much that we can't keep up and is a form of burnout.
When we are starting to feel ourselves shut down, we might withdraw and feel like everything is overstimulating or too much. At these times, it is useful to think about how you can reactivate your system, whilst also honouring it's need for rest and rebalance. This can mean gentle movement such as gentle walks in nature or gentle stretching.
It is important to regain that connection with your body, so things like progressive muscle relaxation (starting at the toes and working your way up the muscle groups alternating between tensing for 5 seconds and relaxing for 5 seconds) and having a nice shower or bath and being present with the feeling of the water flowing around you. Mindfully eating and drinking can also help re-establish this connection.
And even though you may feel like isolating yourself, try to connect with others who you know are supportive as we know this can really help.
Next time you become aware that you are feeling stressed, or out of your window of tolerance, see if you can map out where you are and try some of the techniques to help your system rebalance and get back into its window.