Your Window of Tolerance

December 01, 2020 By Renae Garza, Intern

Let’s face it: 2020 threw us all for a loop.

With everything we have already weathered together this year, it’s natural to feel anxious or fearful about the unknown and what may still be coming our way. The world around us is changing quickly, and that can cause sudden shifts in our Window of Tolerance too.

Our Window of Tolerance is part of our nervous system and is built into us during our early stages of life. It can affect us throughout our life, and when our tolerance is tested, it may become overwhelming to deal with the situation at hand. But what is your Window of Tolerance, and what does it mean when you’re there?

Window Of Tolerance

Your Window of Tolerance is essentially your brain in a healthy nervous system. Everyone has a different Window of Tolerance based on how they were raised. When you’re comfortably in your Window of Tolerance, you’re able to access reason and emotion in a manageable way even during stressful situations. But just because we all have different windows based on our upbringing, doesn’t mean we’re stuck with that specific tolerance for the rest of our lives. You can increase your Window of Tolerance, and when you widen that window it can help you manage your stress response and remain in mindfulness before and during stressful situations.

Out Of Our Tolerance

What does it look like when we’re out of our Window of Tolerance? Well, I like to illustrate it this way:

Imagine driving down the road and suddenly needing to build up to a high speed. You would automatically floor the gas pedal to accelerate quickly. That’s what it’s like at the very top edge of our Window of Tolerance. We call this Hyperarousal, when our fight or flight response signals our sympathetic nervous system to kick in and place us in survival mode, ready to face the immediate threat of our situation.

But what happens when the stressor isn’t a lion chasing us through the savannah, but is instead the stress of losing a job, or learning how to work from home, or the stress of three kids distance learning from the living room? In that case, there may be no immediate perceived danger to fight or flee from, so our hyperarousal manifests as anxiety, more of a hindrance than an assistance.

Let’s get back to that car analogy. You saw a threat, floored the gas pedal, and now you realize you cannot maintain that speed, so you attempt a sudden stop using your brake pedal. Your nervous system does something similar. If it determines that hyperarousal won’t work after a certain period of time, your system automatically shuts down, creating a freeze or collapse state known as hypoarousal. When you’re in hypoarousal, you begin to feel numb or empty, and you could notice yourself dissociating from the things around you as this state continues to drain your system.

Learning Our Tolerance

Taking control of your Window of Tolerance can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Learning where your personal Window of Tolerance is, and where you feel most like yourself is one of the most important steps to having a healthier nervous system.

Learning to recognize when you are reaching the edge of your personal window means you can see your boundaries and find ways to bring yourself away from the edge and closer to the center of your window, where you feel calm and rational.

One way you can reset your nervous system if you find yourself racing the edge of your window is with movement. Types of movement could involve stretching to start out your day feeling calm and emotionally safe. Try practicing mindfulness while just sitting up in bed and doing a few simple stretches, actively noticing how your body is feeling as you move gently. Movements that feel doable and keep you present in the moment can help your regulate your nervous system and expand the boundaries of your tolerance.

When you are comfortably sitting in your Window of Tolerance, you are the healthiest mentally and emotionally. Keeping yourself in that healthy state of mind takes mindfulness and management.

Just a reminder: taking a step back to regulate your nervous system when your Window of Tolerance gets too high and you’re reaching your limits is better than letting that opportunity pass by. Moments like that allow you to learn what helps you personally manage your Window, especially if the situation doesn’t have a “traditional” threat associated with it. Even something as small and simple as taking a moment to breathe mindfully can help you come back into your Window of Tolerance and assist you with a better mindset overall. Which we could all use this year!


Adapted from a video by Joanna Majka, LPC