The Window of Tolerance is a simple and practical concept developed by Dr Dan Siegel (1999). It is commonly used to understand and describe normal changes in brain and body reactions, particularly after facing adversity or trauma.
For many, the sudden changes brought on by the enforcement of Lockdown have thrown us in to adversity. For some of you, this experience has been a traumatic and potentially life changing event, which we are still tolerating.
Being in your Window of Tolerance enables you to operate in an optimum way, but in Lockdown you may have been operating outside your Window of Tolerance. It is likely that your window may have become quite narrow due to the pressures of home schooling, working from home, restrictions on going out, missing your friends etc.
Signs you are within your Window of Tolerance
Feelings are tolerable
Feel and think simultaneously
Feel open and curious (not judgemental or defensive)
Feel safe (not fearful)
Reactions adapt to fit the situation
Awareness of boundaries (yours and others)
Resilient and adaptable to change
Resourceful and calm
When you are within your Window of Tolerance, the brain generally functions well and can effectively process stimuli. You are likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.
When you are outside of your Window of Tolerance, your nervous system responds by going into survival mode – fight, flight or freeze. You can either feel overwhelmed and go into hyper-arousal or you can shut down and go into hypo-arousal. Your window of tolerance can be narrow or wide and is different for all people and at different times in your life.
Hyper-Arousal also known as fight or flight response: Emotional overwhelm, panic, feeling unsafe, angry, racing thoughts, anxiety, etc.
Hypo-Arousal also known as freeze response: Numb, no feelings or energy, can’t think, shut down, ashamed, disconnected, depressed, bored, apathetic, etc.
Being outside your Window of Tolerance is draining and can have an adverse effect on your health. People are hard to be around when they are outside their Window of Tolerance.
When you find you’re are outside your Window of Tolerance, use these skills to bring you back into your Window of Tolerance:
Physical activity – using your body has so many benefits, both mentally and physically. If you’re in hyper-arousal it may help to purge your anger or overwhelm. If you’re feeling hypo-aroused it may well give you some energy and focus.
Challenge your thoughts – don’t believe everything you think! When you have a negative thought, challenge it by replacing it with a positive one. Consider what a good friend might say to you. Be kind to yourself, not harsh or critical.
Mindfulness – raise your awareness of the here and now. Consider using a short guided meditation. Tim Segallar, from Rising Minds, has some good ones here. Try eating mindfully and savouring each mouthful to bring the present in to sharp focus.
Soothe your senses – make yourself a hot or cold drink. Use a hot water bottle or a cold flannel. Wrap yourself in a soft blanket and take some time for you. Light a candle, take a bath. Play some calming music or look at some old photos.
Write things down – writing when you are stressed can give you a chance to process your thoughts and feelings. Writing can also help you to gain perspective on your feelings and move you to a more rational frame of mind.
Grounding – practice grounding yourself in times of high stress. Release gripped hands. Stand tall; feel the ground beneath you. Take a brief walk. Notice your feet connecting with the floor. Orient to and label objects in the room. Call a friend you trust
Breathing – try breathing in through the nose for a count of 4, then breathing out through the mouth for a count of 5. Do this for a few minutes. The longer out-breath will help to calm you.
So, when things are particularly stressful during Lockdown, try to think before you react and be curious about your response to the stress. It may not feel like it, but you do have a choice. Increasing your awareness of your Window of Tolerance gives you resources to draw on and can prevent you moving automatically in to fight, flight or freeze.