The Window of Tolerance is a term created by Dr. Daniel Siegel, a Psychologist at UCLA. The optimal zone of emotions is characterized by being grounded, present, open, flexible, and curious. It’s our ability to be emotionally regulated and capable of tolerating life’s daily stressors. It helps us adjust and function in our world.
We have access to our executive function skills when we are within this window. We can plan, start, and plan out projects, prioritize tasks, regulate our emotions, and practice self-control. Access to our executive functions allows us to solve problems, get work done, and relate well with family, friends, and co-workers.
When we are faced with more stress than we can handle, it brings us out of the Window of Tolerance, and we lose access to our executive skills. They go offline. An example is when you are at work and have more projects than you can handle, and your boss reveals that one of the key members of your team is leaving, and you realize that you and other team members will have to fill the gap. Your boss advises you that you now have an additional project to complete by the end of the week. At that point, when your emotions are triggered, your ability to think clearly and continue working becomes compromised.
This is an example of what happens when entering a hyper-aroused state. Hyperarousal is caused by an overactive sympathetic nervous response. In hyperarousal states, we lose the ability to think clearly and may become angry, irritable or aggressive, hypervigilant, and restless. If something triggers us at work, we get into this heightened state, making it difficult to focus on work. We may also find it hard to sleep or stay asleep when in a hyperarousal state and feel restless. Many people with PTSD experience this state. It’s as though the body is constantly “on high alert,” making it difficult to function.
Conversely, if we become Hypoaroused, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over when we face more stress than we can handle. What happens is that we become so overwhelmed that our body shuts down. We may start feeling foggy, disconnected, fatigued, or may have a freeze response where we become immobilized. The body goes into full-on sensory overload mode. In this state, it becomes challenging to sustain attention and focus. We may experience low energy, numbness, and depression. We may start feeling frustrated, irritated, fearful, or panicked.
As Coaches, we understand that managing emotions is a real challenge for many of our clients. We also know that being neurodivergent, we tend to have a more narrow Window of Tolerance. This is likely due to a combination of factors: our vulnerable neurology and sensory systems, life experiences, and more. As you read this, consider how large is your Window of Tolerance. How much bandwidth do you have to manage the stressors of daily life?
The good news is that we can learn to develop knowledge about our own Window of Tolerance. We can use that knowledge, coupled with tools, to help us learn about our nervous system and what triggers us and choose strategies to become more resilient to manage our emotions better.
First and foremost, know that we all have experiences that bring us outside our tolerance window. To learn more about the neurodivergent nervous system, click here for a deeper dive into this topic.
I would also like to share some strategies to use during times of hypo or hyper-aroused states.
Strategies for Managing Hypoarousal
Mental and Emotional Traits: overwhelmed, immobilized, numb, brain fog, dissociation, lack of focus, low energy, and depression
Goal: Connecting, Energizing
- Drink cold water or splash cold water on your face
- Intense exercise or any kind of movement
- Listen to upbeat music
Strategies for Managing Hyperarousal
Mental and Emotional Traits: anxiety, agitation, fear, worry, panic, frustration, impulsivity, aggression and reckless behavior
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Weighted blanket
- Listen to relaxing music
- Warm bath
- Herbal teas
- Creative arts
To learn more this topic, take a look at this video.
To prevent yourself from getting to a stage of hypoarousal or hyperarousal, take care of yourself by increasing your tolerance for stress and incorporating some of the exercises suggested in the Neurodivergent Insights article above to regulate your nervous system and increase internal stability. As the author stated, “By learning about our own window of tolerance and introducing exercises to increase vagal tone, we can grow our window of tolerance over time.”
Victoria Roche, MSW, PCC
ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach