The Nervous System

The window of tolerance is a way to help us understand what’s happening in our nervous system when we’re experiencing symptoms of stress.

The window refers to an optimal zone where we’re able to function effectively in our daily life, manage our emotions and deal with any challenges we may encounter.

When we’re out of our window of tolerance, we can move into either hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal.

Hyper-arousal is essentially where there is too much energy in our system, creating feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, hyper-vigilance to our surroundings, anger or wanting to run away. This relates to the fight or flight response. 

Hypo-arousal is where we have too little energy in our system, often creating numbness, lack of motivation, feeling spaced out, lack of feeling and often with a freeze, fawn or flop response. 

Both of these are known as dysregulation. 

Our window of tolerance can narrow or widen depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

Hands holding a seedling in soil

During the initial stages of the pandemic for example, many of us experienced a narrowing of our windows in response to the unexpected levels of threat and uncertainty we found ourselves in.

When our window narrows, it doesn’t take much to throw us off course. A situation we might usually be able to deal with can push us out of our window either way, making it more difficult to navigate our lives. For example, we might find ourselves arguing with a friend or partner over something that wouldn’t usually impact us, or becoming upset and tearful about a minor irritation.

People who experience traumatic stress often have a narrowing of their window of tolerance. Fragments from the past, such as intrusive images, thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations hijack the present moment, making it difficult to stay in a state of regulation.

These are automatic survival responses from our nervous system that we have no control over. 

If our window is narrow because of the symptoms of stress we are dealing with inside ourselves, we have little or no capacity to deal with anything else. This can make everyday life difficult to cope with.

Disused railway track in tree tunnel

Learning mindfulness skills and tools can help to widen our window of tolerance over time, enabling us to manage the ups and downs of life more easily and work with greater intensity or challenges in life as they arise.

This creates space, helps us develop a greater awareness of our inner experience, and builds our capacity to know when we’re out of our window or at the edges. We’re then able to utilise tools we’ve learnt to help us move back into a state of regulation more easily.

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