“There are certain moments when you’d be insane to feel content. On the other hand, with practice, we can build up inner shock absorbers so we have more of a resting place that is unconditionally contented, peaceful and open-hearted.” Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
If you think of all your potential emotional states, some you can handle without much difficulty, and others cause you to flip your lid. The states you can handle are inside your window of tolerance, a term coined by Dan Siegel. When you are in your window of tolerance, your brain is functioning well: you can reflect, think rationally, make clear-headed decisions, handle emotions without losing control, and feel safe. When you are outside your window of tolerance, you are likely to flip your lid, another term coined by Dan Siegel.
Think of your wrist as your brain stem, it’s responsible for basic things like breathing and keeping your heart pumping. Your thumb, tucked in, sits in the middle, just like the amygdala is in the center of a brain. The amygdala is responsible for sensing danger and sending danger signals to our brain and our body. Your fingers are your pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us manage emotions and make complex decisions. When our amygdala sounds too many alarms or simply a very strong alarm, our pre-frontal cortex turns off and we “flip our lid.” That’s why it can be so hard to make thoughtful decisions when we are upset.
“Our brains are designed to handle the ups and downs of emotions and experience by remaining within this window of tolerance. We may have unconscious coping mechanisms in place that help us handle that stress, or the passage of time brings us back to the center of that window.” Elizabeth Jackson-Van Sickel
Everyone’s window of tolerance is different. That is why some people freak out over little things while others stay calm during a crisis. The size of your window can be impacted by your environment, the safer you feel, the bigger your window of tolerance. You may notice that the size of your window of tolerance has been impacted by what is going on in the world. Things that did not used to upset you are upsetting you now.
Inside the Window
Imagine a typical day when you are not too stressed, you are alert and able to focus on your tasks. You are operating within your window of tolerance. If a minor stressor comes up (you forgot to purchase an ingredient you need for the dinner you are preparing, you find out your child has been misbehaving at school, you are in a hurry and get every red light), your level of arousal goes up and may even put you at the edge of your window of tolerance. As long as you are within the window, you can handle these stresses without getting out of sorts.
Inside the window is a magic space, where you are aware of the discomfort but don’t flip your lid. We are able to sit with uncomfortable sensations such as tension or anger before they become panic, terror or rage. We can pause to reflect on and understand our inner experience. Without this pause, we may react from a place of perceived unsafety pushing us out of our window of tolerance.
Outside the Window
Here is a description of being outside the window from Trevor Benson, a character in Nicolas Sparks new book, The Return. “Once, about nine months ago, I was standing in the checkout line at Home Depot when the next aisle opened up. The clerk there said he could help the “next person in line,” which was me, but the man behind me rushed over instead, taking what was rightfully my place. No big deal, right? Maybe an irritation, but what was really at stake? A few minutes? On a day when I wasn’t really doing anything at all? The point is that it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I was bothered, then angry, and then, as the emotion continued to build, enraged. I stared at the back of his head with death rays, and I ended up walking out the door less than half a minute behind him. Watching him in the parking lot, I had to fight the visceral urge to chase after him and tackle him to the ground. I imagined pummeling him with my fists, even if I could make a fist with only one of my hands; I imagined driving a knee into his kidneys or his stomach; I visualized ripping his ear off, just as I’d lost mine. My jaw was set, my body bracing for confrontation as I began to walk faster when all of a sudden, it dawned on me that I was experiencing a symptom of PTSD, one that in situations where I should have simply rolled my eyes and gone on with life.”
When we have experienced trauma, have unmet attachment needs, or just one too many irritations, we move out of our window of tolerance. Our senses are on alert and our experiences are intensified causing us to flip our lid.
Adverse experiences may shrink our window of tolerance, giving us a greater tendency to become overwhelmed like Trevor did at the Home Depot. We get high-jacked by the intense responses of our limbic system and we enter into survival mode. We experience periods of either hyper- or hypo-arousal. Our pre-frontal cortex shuts down. We react to perceived or real threats with either a fight/flight or a freeze response. This may result in us behaving in chaotic or overly rigid ways.
When your level of arousal is too high, your fight/flight reaction comes into play. You may notice an increased heart rate, racing thoughts, emotions out of control, panic or hyper vigilance to your surroundings. Because we have flipped our lid, our amygdala is stuck on on. When you are in this state, it is almost impossible to relax. The earlier you can recognize the signals, the more likely you will be able to engage your pre-frontal cortex and develop a response to move you back into your window of tolerance.
When your arousal level is too low, your freeze reaction takes over. Basically, you shut down. You may notice feeling numb or exhausted, a lack of motivation or feeling disconnected from your emotions. Your amygdala is stuck on off. It is hard to take action when you are in this state. As with hyper-arousal, the earlier you can recognize the signals, the easier it is to move back into your window of tolerance.
Returning to your window of tolerance
Thanks to the therapy he had been undergoing, Trevor was able to return to his window of tolerance. He said, “I’d been in therapy for a while by then, and like a steady voice of reason amid an orchestra of emotional noise, Bowen was telling me what to do, telling me to change my behavior. Stop and turn away. Force yourself to smile and relax the muscles. Take five long breaths. Feel the emotion, and then let it go, watching as it dissipates. Weigh the pros and cons regarding the action you want to take. Check the facts and realize that in the broad scheme of things, what really happened doesn’t matter at all.” Nicolas Sparks, The Return
Here are some strategies to use to bring you back to your window of tolerance so you re-engage your prefrontal cortex and respond skillfully.
- Bring yourself back to the present moment by taking a few belly breaths. Focus your attention on the sensation of the air moving from your nostril, through your chest deep into your belly. Many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic nervous system are in the lower lobes. Thus, breathing deep into the belly sends more messages to relax.
- Holding your right nostril closed, breath into your left nostril. The left nostril is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, sending signals to relax.
- Use an anchor to bring you back to the present moment’ something that helps you notice that the present is different from whatever past or future movie you are stuck in. It could be your breath, feeling your feet on the ground, looking at trees or the sky, whatever works for you.
- Check your thoughts by asking yourself, is this really true right now? It may have been true in the past, but is it true in this moment?
- Focus on the physical sensations of your body. Maybe you feel your feet on the ground, or intentionally relax your shoulders or your hands.
- Take a self-soothing action. As your prefrontal cortex is offline, you will have to have decided in advance, what actions can help settle you down. It could be going for a walk, spending time in nature, calling a friend or loved one, or having a cup of coffee or tea.
Widening Your Window of Tolerance
You can widen your window of tolerance, but it takes patience and practice. Here are some things you can do.
- Become more in tune with your body. Spend time noticing the sensations in your body that you have been ignoring for years. Your body sends you clues that you are about to flip your lid before it happens. Learn to listen to it.
- Use RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) to examine the thoughts and emotions that push you out of your window of tolerance. We recognize the discomfort, we allow that what is happening is happening, we investigate how we are feeling and what we need, and we nurture ourselves by providing what we need.
- Build your tolerance for discomfort. Instead of turning away from discomfort, or brushing it under the carpet, turn towards it. I started by turning towards an itch and just letting it be there.
- Build your resources through self-compassion, which shifts your physiology from threat to care.
- Engage in therapy to process your painful emotions and memories so you can increase your emotional regulation capability.
It takes a lot of time and energy to expand your window of tolerance. We have spent many years flipping our lid over things. So, it will take us time to loosen those neural connections and build new ones that act like shock absorbers. The bigger our window of tolerance, the more times our brain will function well, allowing us reflect, think rationally, make clear-headed decisions, handle emotions without losing control and feel safe.