With Pride Inclusive Integrated Healthcare

Getting to know your window of tolerance  

26 August 2020

Written by Sophie Manente (she/her)

With Pride Counsellor

The window of tolerance can be a helpful way to understand how you cope with different situations. Many people wonder how they can keep their cool in one situation, but then totally lose it in another! Or we might wonder why we respond to situations differently from other people.

The window of tolerance refers to an arousal state where we are able to handle things – we can experience distress, but still manage to settle ourselves. We can communicate with others and engage with the world around us. This is a great place to be.

Beyond our window of tolerance, two other arousal states exist – hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Hyperarousal is when we feel extremely anxious, angry, or overwhelmed. This can be understood as the ‘fight and flight’ responses. Hypoarousal is when we feel numb or frozen, or we might shut down. This can be understood as the ‘freeze’ response.

These arousal states, while they are not fun, are totally normal and we all have them. They evolved into our nervous systems to keep us safe from danger. As such, trauma can make our window of tolerance smaller, and make it more likely we’ll tip into hyper- or hypo-arousal. Again, this is totally normal.

This helpful infographic from the US-based National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (2019) illustrates this well.

Becoming curious about your window of tolerance can help you understand what situations are more likely to push you out of it. Once you understand this, you can figure out what will help you cope with those situations better so that you can expand your window of tolerance.

One way to start understanding your window of tolerance is to notice what your body is doing. Since these are nervous system responses, usually there are some physical signs that you might be tipping into hyper- or hypoarousal. A racing heart, agitation, difficulty sleeping or panic attacks can be signs of a hyperaroused state. Signs of hypoarousal can be a sensation of emptiness, exhaustion, feeling numb or frozen, or flat mood. It can be helpful to notice what situations bring about these reactions in you.

These are not exhaustive lists and everyone is different, but this information can get you started on exploring your arousal states and figuring out where you might benefit from learning some coping strategies.

The exciting thing is that we are all capable of expanding our window of tolerance.

As a bonus, when you practice noticing and observing arousal states, you are also practicing mindfulness at the same time! 

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