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Understanding your window of tolerance


What is the 'Window of Tolerance'?

The window of tolerance essentially describes an ideal mood state. When you are within this window you will perform effectively and at your best, you will be able to think rationally and clearly and will respond to events calmly without being overwhelmed or stressed. You will be feeling fine and able to deal with things.

Window of tolerance from NICABM

Credit: National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine

What happens when I'm not in my window of tolerance?

At times of stress or when you have been pushed to your limit, you will go out out your window of tolerance. When you are operating outside of your window your brain is unable to process information and events in a rational and clear way - you end up in fight, flight or freeze mode. These zones are called 'hyperarousal' or 'hypoarousal' and it is known as dysregulation when you enter into them.


The hyperarousal levels is also known as the sympathetic fight or flight response. We become hyper-sensitive to our surroundings and so we may become tense, anxious and defensive. Our behaviours may involve being angry, shouting, crying or being overwhelmed. It may be quite obvious to others that you have reached a limit as the responses are more external.


The hypoarousal levels is also known as the parasympathetic freeze response. When this happens we close ourselves off to others and our environment. We may feel that we have no energy, that we're not really there, we may feel ashamed or we may feel nothing at all. The responses are generally more passive and disconnected.


Everyone's window of tolerance is different - whereas one person may appear to have a wider window of tolerance within which they can accept many challenging events or situation, another person's window of tolerance could be narrower and fewer challenges may push them out of their optimal window of tolerance. It's important to note that your window of tolerance will also change and different times - if you're feeling particularly tired or unwell, your window will be narrower for instance.

How can knowing this help?

1 - notice your levels of stress, frustration or annoyance: think about the window and make a mental note of what is pushing you to your limit. Quite often the window has a cumulative effect - different things throughout the day can push you towards those outer limits, so it may not be one singular thing that causes you to reach those hyper or hypoarousal states.


2 - be aware of your level of stress: if you're starting the day tired or feeling agitated, then you'll already be operating near the edge of your window of tolerance. It's not going to take much to push you over the edge. Try to do things to help lower your stress levels in anticipation.


3 - Grounding skills: if you find yourself operating of your window of tolerance grounding skills can help.

  • Take deep breathes using the 7/11 technique; inhale for 7 seconds and exhale for 11 seconds.

  • Orient yourself to things around; label the things you can see. Focus on and notice the table, the sofa, the lamp etc.

  • Stand up straight and tall and firmly plant your feet down on the ground. Literally ground yourself by feeling the ground beneath your feet.

  • Find a song you enjoy and listen to it.

  • Take a walk; experiencing the outdoors can have a grounding effect on you - notice the floor, breath in the fresh air, focus on the things around you.

4 - Relaxation exercises: learning how to relax can be so useful in avoiding going outside of your window of tolerance in the first place. Make time as often as you can to do something that you find relaxing for instance; going for a walk, doing exercise, being creative, reading a book etc.




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