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

Tips to reset your brain and body when everything feels impossible

Michele DeMarco, PhD
Elemental
Published in
10 min readSep 21, 2020

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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…

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Michele DeMarco, PhD
Elemental

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