All of us have some resiliency to cope with challenges. When we face difficult experiences that take us past the range of our ability to tolerate, we tend to split into two categories: those of us who get agitated, and those of us who shut down.
Sometimes, being challenged to venture into the edges of our window of tolerance is okay- it’s how we learn to trust our resources and grow- but the extreme ends of our window of tolerance are where growth, learning, and authentic engagement are impossible. At those extremes, brains neurologically enter a fight/flight/freeze state and can’t grow.
How do we know when to push through difficult conversations or to take a break? By checking in with ourselves and the other. Whether it’s a romantic partner, our own child, a student, client, or co-worker, we can all care a little better for each other by learning to recognize cues that a person is exiting their window of tolerance, entering what mental health professionals call states of Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal, and ways to support their return into the conversation.
Getting flooded emotionally has the effect, within the brain, of literally shutting down the brain processes responsible for self-reflection, considering other viewpoints, complex decision making, etc. Learning in advance the boundaries of our own window of tolerance- and getting familiar with the terrain of our partner’s or children’s emotional capacity) can be a way to prevent this emotional flooding, and create better self-awareness and healthier conflict. Mindful awareness increases our capacity to be intentional about the choices we make in all situations- even highly emotionally charged ones.
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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.
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 intensity, sensitivity, specificity, 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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Pressuring individuals to stay engaged in conversation or conflict after they’ve moved beyond their capacity doesn’t help. Instead, take a break and re-engage after the person has had time to regulate. / At optimal arousal, people can learn, cope, and manage their emotions / Signs of distress for hypoarousal-inclined people: Delayed responses – shutting down – emotional withdraw. at the other end of the spectrum (Hyperarousal) signs of distress are Heightened anxiety – difficulty focusing – tears – rapid speech