We all have limits for how much stress we can tolerate; in psychology, this is called our window of tolerance. Within these limits, living seems easy. You may feel calm, confident, connected, courageous, compassionate, curious, clear, and creative. These are all qualities of mind that are important for wellbeing, both within us as well as with others. It’s the place where you feel content, you’re less reactive to challenges, and connecting with others is a breeze. It feels good to be here!
However, as we all know, stress and/or adversity is a natural part of living and being human. When we experience these situations to the extreme and/or for a long period of time, we can be pushed outside our window of tolerance. This is typically the place where it feels uncomfortable and exhausting. At one end of the spectrum, we enter fight or flight mode, which is typically referred to as hyper-arousal. In this state, you are likely to be feeling ‘on edge’, anxious and/or panicky with racing thoughts. When pushed even further out of our window of tolerance, we tend to go into freeze or shutdown mode. This is the place where getting out of bed can be a struggle, and we experience feelings such as emotional numbness, emptiness or paralysis.
So how can we use this information to help us with our wellbeing? For starters, being aware of when you are outside your window of tolerance is an important first step. Being outside this zone for a prolonged period can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health, as well as our relationships, so it’s important to have an awareness of when we are sitting on the outside so that we can do something about it. The next step is to bring yourself back into your window of tolerance, which can be done by yourself or with a therapist. Grounding and mindfulness skills are important for calming your nervous system and bringing yourself out of hypo- or hyper-arousal states (there are plenty of resources on You Tube if you’d like to learn more about mindfulness and grounding).
Other strategies can be simply to take a break, take yourself into a different environment (nature always helps with this), reach out to family and friends and basically do anything that ‘fills your cup’. As well as these, and if possible, directly deal with the thing that is stressing you out.
From an Internal Family Systems approach, I would encourage you to listen to your self-talk when you are sitting outside of your window of tolerance and appreciate that these are messages coming from parts of you who want and need your attention. It might seem strange but try to have a conversation with them just as you would with a friend in need (this is where journaling may help). What do they have to say? Can you validate them and appreciate them for only wanting the best for you? You might find that, once these voices have been heard, that you will naturally relax back into your window of tolerance.
Beyond learning how to identify your window of tolerance and bring yourself back into this zone when you become dysregulated, another important aspect is working on how to widen your window of tolerance. Of course, the wider your window of tolerance, the more stress and adversity you can face without becoming dysregulated into those hyper- and hypo- states of arousal, which is handy for living a purposeful and fulfilling life. Widening your window of tolerance is one of my main aims for my clients in therapy, and will be the topic of next month’s blog, so stay tuned!
To learn more/book in a virtual session with Dr Sarah Sorensen: http://www.drkathleen.co.nz/team/sarah/. She is available worldwide for consultations. Or give us a call: +64 (09) 973 0070 firstname.lastname@example.org