Finding Balance - The Window of Tolerance
As our bodies respond to both the world around us and signals coming from within, we move between different levels of arousal. We are constantly adapting and shifting emotionally and physically. In this page we consider the different levels of bodily arousal. Exploring this fluid process allows us to notice associated experiences and develop better responses to our arousal level, often focused on working towards staying within our window of tolerance in which we can optimally respond to the demands of everyday life.
The window of tolerance is a term used to describe a level of arousal in which we are engaged with the world around us and we are able to tolerate the demands that life throws at us. Here we explore hyperarousal in which our arousal is above the optimal ‘window’ and hypoarousal which is when our arousal levels fall below optimum.
This is when are arousal levels are high and we feel overwhelmed, anxious and panicky. There may also be feelings of anger which can make us feel out of control. We want to run away and hide as we feel under threat or that life is too much. Our thoughts are racing and our senses become heightened as we look out for danger.
This is when are arousal levels are low. We can feel numb, empty, that we have no energy and have shut down. Our minds might feel foggy and we lose our sense of time as if we have frozen. We can feel absent as if we are “not there” and respond passively to others.
The Window of Tolerance
The space in which we feel able to helpfully respond to our needs and manage the everyday challenges of life is described as ‘The window of tolerance’. This is where we find balance, we feel challenged but not too stressed – calm but not bored or tired. In this space we can feel a sense of ‘flow’ in which we are able to access both the thinking brain and the emotional brain which we discuss in a page as linked below.
Experiences of adversity and trauma make finding a balance, and staying within the window of tolerance, more difficult.
Adverse experiences make our window narrower, making it easier to slip into hyper or hypo-arousal. Learning skills such as grounding, mindfulness, and influencing relationships and our environment so that we feel safe, can help us to stay within our window of tolerance.
Striking this balance allows us to connect with both information coming from our emotional and feeling responses, combined with the flexible and problem-solving abilities of the thinking brain. Often talking therapies focus on building a capacity to both feel our emotions and use the language of the thinking brain to understand, verbalise and respond helpfully to our feelings.
Working to Stay Within The Window of Tolerance
If we find that we are quickly triggered into states of ‘fight/flight’ or ‘shutting down’ – otherwise known as ‘hyper-arousal’ or ‘hypo-arousal’ – we may notice that we are no longer in a place where we can both think and feel optimally and may feel out of control. There may be several reasons why we’re are struggling to stay within the window of tolerance, and therefore every person will have their own unique solutions. Speaking with someone we can trust, such as a friend or relative, may help us to understand what may work for us. A good place to start could involve practicing grounding skills by following the page below.