Imagine your capacity to tolerate emotions as a window. When you are inside the window, emotions feel manageable. Stress is tolerable. Things are UNDER CONTROL. Some people have windows that are big and wide, floor to ceiling windows if you will. These people can tolerate big emotions and intense bodily sensations without getting discombobulated. It’s hard to rattle these big window people. Astronauts and brain surgeons are likely often big window people. Other people have windows that are smaller and more narrow, more like attic windows perhaps. These people get jangled more easily.
It’s important to resist the temptation of labeling big windows as better than small windows. Without small window people, I imagine the world would have far less artists, writers, musicians, and helpers. The fact is, we need MORE sensitivity in the world, not less. However, an exceedingly narrow window of tolerance can result in distress and can impede the successful treatment of trauma.
Dr. Daniel Siegel calls the aforementioned window ‘the window of tolerance’, and it is important in our understanding of how we process and integrate information and experiences during times of stress. It also has important implications for healing from trauma.
Sometimes stress becomes too intense and it overwhelms. We exceed a personal threshold and swing outside of our window of tolerance. This can happen in two ways. Our nervous systems can either tick into a zone of hyperarousal or it can tick into a zone of hypoarousal.
Symptoms of hyperarousal include shaking, sweating, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, intestinal discomfort, diarrhea, dry mouth, tingling/numbness of the extremities, shortness of breath, confusion, agitation, restlessness, and much more.
Symptoms of hypoarousal include numbness, feeling disconnected from reality, feeling ‘out of it’, feeling ‘spaced out’, as well as a more extreme version of spacing out termed ‘dissasociation’ .
When we swing outside of the window of tolerance, cognitive function is compromised. That is, outside of our windows, we don’t think so good. This has real life repercussions and it is the reason why in the heat of the moment, we often have difficulty thinking and can literally be at a loss for words. I don’t have any words. I’m speechless. I can’t think straight.
It is also a reason why, as we heal, it is important to concurrently learn strategies for managing emotions and arousal. So, if you go to therapy or engage in any other kind of healing practice, before jumping into the deep end, before digging into the very sticky spots, it is critical to learn how to keep oneself within the window of arousal. In order to to process experiences and integrate healing, we must first to learn to regulate arousal. Grounding and relaxation techniques are one way of doing this and in the context of therapy, a skilled therapist will be able to guide you through these techniques and skills.
It is also a good reason why stepping away and refraining from speaking/acting is often a sound course of action when emotions are running high. Walk away, take some time, find a way to ground yourself, and then return once emotions have settled back into the window of tolerance.
Thank you to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) for the above graphic