Your window of tolerance is your capacity for resilience. It’s a state of being where we can think rationally and make decisions based on multiple pieces of information. As you sit and read through my website you’re most likely inside your window of tolerance. If you weren’t, it would be very difficult for you to be taking in and thinking about all the information you’ve read so far.
We all exit our window of tolerance sometimes. Have you ever been upset enough that someone telling you to “calm down” has just made you more angry? That’s hyperarousal. Also known as fight or flight.
Sometimes, when a threat is very dangerous, we freeze. The safest choice is to play dead or dissociate from our bodies. Repeatedly numbing as a safety response can become a learned behaviour which we start to use automatically under stress. That’s hypoarousal.
Sometimes, after experiencing trauma your window of tolerance shrinks. This means that the same trigger that you wouldn’t have noticed before can send your nervous system in overdrive, into hyperarousal or hypoarousal. If you experienced trauma as a child, you may never have known any other way to respond to the triggers of the world.
One of the keys to expanding your window of tolerance is to be able to notice the physical sensations that your body expresses just before you exit your window of tolerance. For example you may notice a tightness in your chest. If you notice this as it happens, you can choose to practice grounding strategies, self soothe or ask for a hug. If you ignore these sensations, your brain will assign an emotion to them, for example “anxiety”. Your brain likes to know why things happen, so it might decide that the reason you are anxious is because someone is about to jump out and get you. This makes you more anxious and creates a loop which reinforces “anxiety” as a habit with the trigger for that initial chest tightness becoming easier and easier. Therefore continuing to shrink your window of tolerance.