The “Window of Tolerance” is a concept that describes our experience of being in a stable, internally connected, socially engaged state. In polyvagal theory this is the “ventral vagal” state. It is grounded in a sense of security – feeling emotional safety, and holding a general belief in our self-efficacy and worthiness. That means that even if we face a challenge, we are still able to 1) feel like we will survive it (safety), 2) feel like we are capable/we can handle it (self-efficacy), and 3) feel good enough/deserving of a good outcome (goodness/worth).
Stressors push us away from our window of tolerance and engage our fight-flight-freeze response systems. And that’s okay – when we can feel stress AND stay connected (or return quickly) to feelings of calm, confidence, and connection, we experience growth. Discomfort is not a sign of danger, in spite of what our nervous system might be telling us. That’s why it’s called “growing pains.”
Stress becomes problematic when our nervous system gets “stuck” outside the window, and we develop beliefs connected with the experience of feeling unsafe, powerless, and/or unworthy. We might feel acutely or chronically stressed or triggered, or lose our sense of self even, because we can’t access our feelings of calm, confidence, and connection. The good news is….
We can build our resilience – our immunity to developing trauma symptoms, our ability to heal after trauma, our strength to withstand challenges and have grit without burnout – by expanding our window of tolerance. Window of Tolerance is not a fixed ability! Neuroplasticity means we can change our brain and how our nervous system responds. At any age and no matter the extent of the trauma or the symptoms.
The key to widening our window is choosing to leave our window, while using coping skills to regulate our nervous systems in order to integrate those experiences into our window.
This may sound a lot like “exposure and desensitization” therapy, or interoceptive exposures, and it has plenty in common, with a bit more awareness and intention behind it. It’s not just about changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors: it is also about incorporating existing strengths and developing more positive self beliefs.
It’s not about eliminating stress, or fear, or grief: it’s about introducing the feelings of calm, confidence, and connection in addition to those feelings so that we don’t have to feel overwhelmed, traumatized, or burned out.
Think about what experiences you’d like to incorporate into your window of tolerance – what things you’d like to be able to do with a greater feeling of calm, confidence, and connection- and let that motivate your practice and your growth.
Expanding our window is about staying aware of our internal and external resources for coping, productivity, and relating, even while we practice something that makes us uncomfortable.
That means noticing and building awareness and acceptance of feelings of discomfort – rather than shutting down, avoiding, or otherwise attempting to end the discomfort – by practicing sitting with it. Often, by “sitting with the feeling” and tuning in to our emotions and needs that arise, we are able to process the feeling and let it pass.
The more we tune in to discomfort, the more consciously we respond to it using our resources and abilities (interoception), rather than getting pulled into our fight/flight/freeze responses (neuroception). The more experiences we have of awareness, acceptance, and conscious responses to our emotion rather than reactivity, the more we feel calm, confident, and connected when we encounter discomfort. Our window of tolerance expands.
Here are some ways to practice feeling discomfort in order to expand our window of tolerance:
- HIIT exercise
- Cold water immersion (start with the last ten seconds of your shower and build up)
- Mindfulness meditation
- Journaling (as a self-reflection/self-compassion practice, not symptom tracking)
- Deep breathing
- “Resourcing” practices to build on feeling Calm, Confident, Connected: imagine a caring person in your life sending you love and compassion, think of times you’ve coped well with a difficult situation, list things you have accomplished or feel proud of, practice a “peaceful place” meditation regularly as well as a “container” as your go-to calming resources (youtube has good ones!)
- Discomfort “Cross-training” – I ask clients to think of activities that would build their resiliency muscle without overwhelming them, and practice regularly; for example, if someone is anxious about dating they might sign up for volunteer work (practice meeting new people!), someone dissociative might practice rock-climbing or hiking (practice staying aware of your body!), and someone with fear of throwing up might take an improv class (practice feeling a lack of control in a way that leads to fun and humor)
- Access Support – increasing your feelings of connection helps you stay in your window, so connecting with friends and family often, and belonging to a group (of friends, a group activity, a faith community, an athletic team, a therapy group, etc) fulfills a core need for all of us even introverts!
- Working with a therapist can help too. The act of going to therapy in and of itself can be a way of widening the window, since it is accessing support, and it often feels uncomfortable! Therapies like EMDR, IFS, ACT, CBT, and DBT all help us build awareness and increase tolerance for discomfort.
The goal of all of these activities is to build self-awareness as well as tolerance of stress or trauma symptoms, through building up and hardwiring feelings of calm, confidence, and connection. The more you practice, the more you will notice being able to have “one foot in and one foot out” of the window: noticing the feelings of calm, confidence, and connection at the same time as encountering stress and discomfort. And, the more you practice over time, the more you’ll reflect on how you can keep both feet on the ground during those times of stress. This is the process of trauma healing and resilience-building.