the impact of stress on window of tolerance - Illustration by Lindsay Braman

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Our window of tolerance refers to how much we can handle, emotionally, before shutting down or blowing up (Emotional states called “hypoarousal” and “hyperarousal” by brain researchers.) Healthy brains in optimal circumstances have a big arch that helps us stay present to listen, learn, and grow even when difficult stuff is happening. The normal arch of a health window of tolerance looks like the rainbow illustrated in the original version of this doodle: wide and high with lots of wiggle room between “ok,” “kind ok,” and “very not ok.”

For brains that have experienced trauma, neglect, or some mental illnesses, that learning space is a little smaller. Those kids and adults may move into shut-down or overwhelm more quickly. What I wanted to illustrate when I revised this doodle for mid-coronavirus publishing is something you may already know intuitively but not have the language to communicate: Windows of tolerance shrink during times of high-stress.

If you had a healthy window of tolerance before Coronavirus, it’s normal to feel tears well up much easier right now or just want to check out. Feeling like you are more irritable OR more dissociatively binge-watching TV to soothe emotions is typical during periods of sustained stress.  If your window of tolerance was already a little smaller, you may be noticing even less flexibility. Rather than forcing yourself to engage when you can’t, give yourself permission to ask for what you need in order to stay present (like breaks, or tabling a conversation until after a meal/walk/etc). Often, just permitting ourselves to move between “ok” and “not ok” without judgment can help make just a little more space to be ok.

Expanding our Window of Tolerance

The good news is that windows of tolerance aren’t set for life, just as they can shrink during times of stress, trauma, or crisis, they can expend in capacity and flexibility in response to the changes that happen in our brain through good therapy, stable attachments in relationships, mindfulness, yoga, time spent outdoors and more. If you want to learn more, books by Dr. Dan Siegel are great. He pioneered this concept and his resources are very approachable because many are written to an every day (rather than academic) audience.

Download the original Window of Tolerance digital teaching resource below:

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Sustained Stress

As we round the corner of our first full month in Codiv-19 quarantine, “stressful” is settling in as the new “normal” in some ways. However, even though it’s now familiar, pandemic quarantine stress is not a level of stress that we can thrive in.  To our emotional brains, we may feel ever bit as stressed and helpless as day 1 of quarantine, and recognizing that without judgment is the first step towards soothing.

Window of Tolerance in Research

Dr. Dan Siegel pioneered the concept of Window of Tolerance and writes about it at length in the book The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. According to the emerging research in psychology and neurobiology,  our emotions are an important part of how our minds become organized and integrated as we mature.

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According to his theory, a person’s window of tolerance is just one aspect of how our emotional reactivity (the felt sense of how we respond to the world around us). Other elements include its intensitysensitivityspecificity, and how long it takes for us to get back to our baseline after being upset. These factors can vary based on our temperament and biological/genetic makeup, but also, significantly, by our attachment history. In other words, the people who have cared for us when we are highly emotional,  and whom we have witnessed get emotional, like parents or partners, influence our own ability to regulate our emotions.

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