If you’re on a trauma healing journey, you may have heard the term “window of tolerance”. The concept, developed by Dan Siegel, refers to nervous system responses.
When arousal levels in the body are too high or too low, you are outside your window of tolerance. It’s normal to feel a certain amount of arousal – that’s how we grow.
But too much and we tend to atrophy. That’s why it can help to administer self care while doing scary things.
That’s why you can attend Toastmasters for years without feeling any better about public speaking. In fact, you might feel worse.You can attend Toastmasters for years without feeling any better about public speaking. In fact, you might feel worse. Click To Tweet
If you keep ignoring your window of tolerance and “pushing through”, this heightened state of arousal may prevent healthy growth. Knowing how to comfort yourself and provide a sense of safety will foster that growth.
We are looking for a “just right” state of arousal. As in, not too low (freeze mode or numbed out), and not too high (the hypervigilance you are likely familiar with).
Arousal states outside window of tolerance
The former is called hyper-arousal. That’s when your fight or flight gets activated and you feel anxious or overwhelmed.
In this state, you feel emotionally dysregulated and panicky. That’s not a place from which good work arises, be it personal or professional.
On the other hand, hypo-arousal refers to the opposite state of shutting down to protect yourself. This may lead to depression, disassociation, and feeling empty.
If you’ve been through childhood trauma, your window of tolerance may be small. That makes it easy for you to enter states that are less than ideal for growth and mastery.If you've been through childhood trauma, your window of tolerance may be small. Click To Tweet
As you heal, your window will grow larger, making it easier for you to manage things that used to flummox you.
Even after healing, your window will seem larger on some days than others. For example, women may fluctuate with their cycles or the moon (or both).
How to stay within your ideal window
1. Mindfulness practices
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment without judgment. That is, accepting whatever arises and getting curious rather than shaming yourself.
You can use your senses as a guide to ground you. Name things you see, smell, feel, hear, and taste to remind you of your safety in the present moment.
2. Self care
Ask yourself what you need right now and provide it to yourself. Do you want to give yourself a hug or a warm drink?
Perhaps you need to brain dump everything on your mind into a journal or voice recorder. Maybe you want to get creative.
3. Self compassion
Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment or shame. Too often, we push away uncomfortable feelings or override them with positive thinking.
Self-compassion has the counterintuitive effect of helping you process difficult feelings. It’s true that what you resist persists, and avoiding certain feelings only makes them linger.
4. Deep breathing
Most of us breathe far too shallowly and this can even contribute to panic attacks. Lengthen and deepen each inhale and exhale.
Pay attention to your breathing and allow yourself to connect with your body. Feel the increase of oxygen that flows when you take time to breathe more deeply.
Vigorous movement like jumping jacks can help you out of a state of hypo-arousal. You may also choose to go for a walk in nature or do exercise you enjoy to return to your window of tolerance.