Widening your window

Last month I wrote a piece on how to stay within your window of tolerance, and here is the follow up on widening your window of tolerance that I promised!

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of ‘window of tolerance’, briefly, it’s a mental state where you are able to tackle life’s curve balls in a calm, collected manner. In this space you are also able to effectively problem solve and connect with others, all of which are helpful for wellbeing. Noticing when you are out of your window and having the tools available (such as meditation and grounding) are great skills for bringing yourself back into that sweet spot. Another helpful dimension to your window of tolerance is how wide it is to begin with; the wider it is, the less likely you are to be pushed out of it and the greater amounts of stress and adversity you are likely to effectively handle. 

As a whole, widening your window of tolerance involves both physical and mental factors. When it comes to the body, ensuring you have ample amount of sleep, nutrition and exercise are essential factors in your capacity to handle stress. Just like a machine, if our body isn’t functioning and/or fueled properly, our window becomes very narrow and the slightest amount of stress can set us off. If you’ve ever come across stress whilst sick and/or in pain, then you may be able to resonate with this! 

Beyond the body, mental factors also play a pivotal role in how wide or narrow is our window of tolerance. In particular, because of its influence on our nervous system, one way to widen your window is to address unresolved trauma. When we experience trauma, we have parts of ourselves that take on a role to prevent that experience occurring again and they work very hard to ensure our mental – if not physical – survival. This puts our nervous systems on high alert for similar situations as we move through everyday life, and as such, potentially benign situations can be interpreted as a threat. It’s a bit like an overly sensitive fire alarm that goes off when the toast is burnt; there isn’t actually a house fire, but it is so sensitive to any threat that it goes off unnecessarily. Reminders of prior trauma that we interpret as potential threats are typically called ‘triggers’ and – just like the smoke alarm – the more sensitive we are to these, the narrower our window becomes because we are constantly ‘going off’. Because of this, addressing and integrating previous traumatic experiences can recalibrate our ‘smoke alarms’ and we become more able to recognise everyday stressors as manageable obstacles rather than threats to our survival. 

So in all, being present enough to notice where you are sitting in relation to your window is an important first step. From there, taking steps to calm your nervous system and bring yourself back into your window of tolerance is the next step. Looking at the whole picture, however, doing the mental and physical work (as described above) to widen your window of tolerance will ensure that you are not constantly struggling to keep within your window, and will be hugely beneficial for your wellbeing in the long-term.

Dr. Sarah Sorensen (BSc, MSc, PhD)
Mind/Body Practitioner