Unraveling? Your Stress Levels Are Likely Beyond Your ‘Window of Tolerance’

Tips to reset your brain and body when everything feels impossible

Photo: serezniy/Getty Images

According to psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel, each of us has a “window of tolerance.” Siegel coined the term to describe normal brain/body reactions, especially following adversity. The idea is that human beings have an optimal arousal zone that allows emotions to ebb and flow, which, in turn, enables a person to function most effectively and manage the everyday demands of life without difficulty. Thanks to the deleterious events of 2020, for many people that ebb and flow has been dammed.

As a professionally trained therapist, clinical ethicist, and trauma researcher, I see daily the harmful effects of this year’s adversity. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that nearly half (53%) of Americans report that the pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health. This is up from 32% reported in March. Kaiser also reported widespread negative behavioral effects, such as difficulty sleeping (36%) and eating (32%), increases in excessive alcohol consumption or substance abuse (12%), and worsening chronic conditions (12%). A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress reported calls were up more than 1,000% in April compared with the same time last year. Talkspace, an online counseling provider, reported a 65% increase in clients in the last six months.

What the data makes clear is that if you’re worried, scared, anxious, depressed, irritable, confused, frustrated, grieving, exhausted, struggling to sleep, or just on edge (sigh), you’re not alone. As Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said to the Washington Post, “Given the circumstances, feeling anxious is part of a normal response to what’s going on.”

Understanding your window of tolerance

When a person is within their window of tolerance — again, a manageable ebb and flow of emotions — they are, generally speaking, able to think rationally, reflect and discern, function well, and make decisions without feeling overwhelmed. If that person experiences distress that brings them close to the edge of their “window,” they are typically able to leverage strategies to keep from leaping out. But with the prolonged and unprecedented levels of stress today, and in some cases grief, PTSD, and moral injury, among other traumas, the effect can feel more like being pushed out of that window.

For people who have experienced trauma or chronic adversity earlier in life, particularly at a young age, this feeling is like being catapulted out of that window. This is because traumatic experiences imprint themselves on our physiology: a person’s senses become heightened, which sends them into a “perma-hyper-alert” state; and experiences and reactions intensify, so that everything seems more severe or even doomsday. Both of these responses make a person’s window drastically smaller and make finding strategies for coping that much harder.

When a person is within their window of tolerance, they are, generally speaking, able to think rationally, reflect and discern, function well, and make decisions without feeling overwhelmed.

While stress and anxiety don’t feel good, they are the result of our natural defense system triggering a survival-based fight/flight/freeze response. The body processes perceived threats through the autonomic nervous system, an involuntary and reflexive, “behind-the-scenes” mechanism that helps to keep us alive. The nervous system has two major branches. One is the sympathetic nervous system, which mobilizes the body’s internal resources to take action if there’s a threat. The second is the parasympathetic nervous system, often called the “rest and digest,” “feed and breed,” or “tend and befriend” system, because it dampens the more acute sympathetic responses and keeps the body in a restorative and resting state. (There is a third branch called the enteric system that is confined to the gastrointestinal tract.)

When operating in our window of tolerance, the two branches play a happy game of “tag, you’re it” — working together to manage the body’s responses depending on the situation. For instance, if you’re running late for a meeting, the sympathetic nervous system may kick into gear during moments of rushing or worrying about the consequences of being tardy. Once you get to the meeting and settle in, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and re-regulates the body back to calm and normal functioning.

Adapted from Ogden et al., 2006; Siegal, 1999; and Segal, 2013.

But during extreme times of stress, one or both of these branches can get out of whack. What results are periods of either hyper- or hypoarousal.

Hyperarousal, commonly referred to as the fight/flight response, is associated with the sympathetic nervous system and is a system “stuck on.” When in this state, a person can become hypervigilant, anxious, panicky, angry, overwhelmed, or consumed by racing thoughts. It can be hard to relax or sleep. They might also experience chronic pain or digestion issues — what we often call a “nervous stomach.” Hypoarousal, commonly referred to as the freeze response, is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and is a system “shut off.” It causes people to shut down and withdraw or to feel numb, empty, exhausted, depressed, and stuck. They may have little energy or motivation. They may also become disoriented or dissociate.

Adapted from Ogden et al., 2006; Siegal, 1999; and Segal, 2013.

In either state, it can become difficult to process thoughts and other stimuli as we otherwise would. This is because the prefrontal cortex area of the brain — where rational, higher-order cognitive functioning occurs — effectively shuts down. The prefrontal cortex is essentially a control center that corrals our baser emotions and impulses. It’s the “super-sensitive” area of the brain that evolved most recently — so much so, that even short-term anxieties and everyday worries will cause neurochemical changes that can immediately weaken network connections. When this happens, the nervous system has become dysregulated and we move outside our window of tolerance.

If you’ve experienced this kind of dysregulation, or observed it in someone else, perhaps you’ll recognize how your (or their) response to things — like sudden noises, a remark, dropping something as simple as a pen — become more rigid, intense, or chaotic and harder to endure. Overreacting to harmless triggers or false alarms is a hallmark of being out of your window of tolerance.

Expanding your window of tolerance

“Get over it” (“it” being stress, anxiety, or any other emotion that flares up when you’re outside your window) is a self-talk technique often employed to combat the upsetting feeling. “Think happy thoughts,” “Don’t be stressed,” “Be calm” are a few others. The problem is that the nervous system doesn’t easily understand this rational, higher-order cognitive functioning language. It prefers “somatic speak” — meaning tuning into the body for messages to help it shift an out-of-whack arousal level back to normal functioning. Because everyone’s window of tolerance is different, the key is to figure out what works for you specifically, and when.

What follows are some practices to help when you find yourself outside of your window and in either a hyper- or hypoarousal state.

To decrease arousal (for hyperarousal)

  • Diaphragmic or “belly” breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing means that when you inhale, your belly expands outward. When you exhale, your belly should cave in. The more your belly expands, and the more it caves in, the deeper you’re breathing — which is what you want. This method is quick and can be practiced anywhere. The key is to slow your breath from the typical 10–14 breaths per minute to five to seven breaths per minute. An easy way to do this is by inhaling for a count of five, holding it briefly, and exhaling for a count of 10. While it’s nice to lay down, this practice can be done in any pose.
  • The diver’s reflex/cold exposure. Hyperarousal makes you feel “hot under the collar.” The “diver’s reflex” — the body’s physiological response to acute submersion in cold water — can help ease that feeling. This is because it stimulates the vagus nerve and activates nerve cells (called cholinergic neurons) that wind through vagus nerve pathways. Try finishing your next shower with 30 seconds of cold water, and feel your body calm and your window open. If that seems too jarring, you can ease yourself into it by submerging only your face in cold water. You can also place ice cubes in a Ziploc bag and hold it against your face while holding your breath for a count of six to eight seconds.
  • Grounding techniques. Grounding (or “earthing” as it is sometimes called) is a way to focus on what is happening to you physically, whether in your body or your surroundings. It’s a technique that breaks the cycle of hyperarousal by bringing you into the present, and out of fixating on the past or future. One technique for grounding is 5–4–3–2–1. To begin, notice your surroundings. Inhale and exhale, slowly and big. Then name five things you can see around you (in your space, out the window). Name four things you can feel (warmth of your skin, your feet against the floor, the table in front of you), three things you can hear (cars on the road, birds in the trees, a humming in the ceiling vent), and two things you can smell (take a deep breath in). Finally, name one good thing about yourself.
  • Container/“self hug.” Don’t let the name fool you. This is a seriously effective calm-down exercise. It was created by trauma researcher Peter Levine. Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. Place your right hand in the crux of your left armpit, and your left hand over your right shoulder — as though you’re giving yourself a hug. Breathe slowly, and let your body relax. Pay attention to what’s going on inside: What your fingers feel; what’s coursing through your feet, legs, and stomach — all the way up to your head. Feel the temperature and notice if it changes. Notice where energy is pulsing or absent. Stay like this for a bit, allowing yourself to settle. Let yourself feel supported, contained, and safe within the position. Continue breathing and gently hugging yourself. Notice when something shifts — your breath, sensations in your body, how you feel in space. Sit with this a little while longer. Allow the experience to open your window. Come back to a resting place.
  • Unexpected ways. Try drinking from a straw, or humming, singing, chanting, and gargling. Laughter also works, as does jumping on a trampoline. (Like the diver’s reflex, these practices stimulate the vagus nerve.) Use a weighted blanket at night for sleeping. (Research shows that deep pressure stimulation can help reduce autonomic arousal.) Try prayer or meditation.

Overreacting to harmless triggers or false alarms is a hallmark of being out of your window of tolerance.

To increase arousal (for hypoarousal)

  • Sensory stimulation. Anything that arouses your senses can be helpful for getting out of that low-feeling “freeze.” Swing your arms across your body. Try the “Astronaut Walk:” slow, intentional, exaggerated stomping on the ground. Chew crunchy food or gum. Smell essential oils or anything with a potent smell (a fast track to stimulate the brain). Rock in a rocking chair. Bounce on an exercise ball. Use shakers or maracas. Go into nature and bring all your senses to your surroundings.
  • The squeeze ball. Paced resistance can help to slowly and safely bring energy back into your body. Get a palm-size ball (a tennis ball or small yoga ball, even your dog’s rubber ball can work) and slowly, evenly squeeze and release it. You can also massage it. As you do, bring awareness to your fingers. Focus on the tension and release of that tension. Continue for a minute or two.
  • Grain balloon. Multisensory attentional activity can help to reignite your nervous system when it’s “stuck off.” Get a small balloon and fill it with some kind of crunchy grain (quinoa, rice, small beans). Hold the balloon with both hands, and slowly roll it forward, squeezing and kneading with each turn. Pay attention not only to how it feels, but also listen to the crunching sound.
  • Get into your thinking brain. Hypoarousal can cause the body’s mental energy to “freeze” or become locked up, which is one reason why people withdraw or disengage. When this happens, activating your mental processes can help to bring you back into your window of tolerance. Look around the room and name all the colors you see. Count the windows, chairs, or books on a shelf that surround you. Find an object in the room starting with A, then B, then C (work your way through the alphabet). Hold and describe an object, speaking out loud. Count backward from 20 to one, again out loud. Try expressive writing.
  • Unexpected ways. These include finger painting, playing with Play-Doh or clay, and blowing through a straw.

We all have moments that push us beyond our window of tolerance. Understanding the personal systems, tendencies, and history that cause this to happen can go a long way toward helping us deal with life’s stressors. It is important to remember that our window of tolerance can change from day to day, or even moment to moment. For example, feeling tired, hungry, or sick often narrows our window. Also, bear in mind that a situation that slams our own window shut might not affect someone else in the same way, so don’t beat yourself up or waste time comparing yourself. What matters is understanding the mechanisms of your specific window of tolerance, and this requires paying close attention to the patterns of your responses and to what’s going on inside your body when they occur. One last thing to remember is that this process can take some time and ongoing practice. Take it slow to start. Try to learn one new thing each day. Continue to use the techniques above. Soon you’ll start to feel the “fresh air” of being able to adjust your window as necessary when you’re stressed.

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t. micheledemarco.com

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