In order to understand how to manage your stress and reduce feelings of distress, dysfunction, and dysregulation, it is important to understand a core concept related to increasing resiliency: the “Window of Tolerance.”
When we encounter challenges, we all experience the feeling of stress in some way, shape, or form. Stress is not inherently good or bad – it is just a part of life, and it is the impact of stress and how we incorporate it into our lives which determines how we feel. Stress can be a sidenote, a sidekick, or a villain in our story, depending on how we manage it.
While we all encounter stress from challenges, losses, identity crises, transitions, and fluctuation in emotions throughout our lives, what brings people into therapy is the experience of heightened distress around any of those things. We all have different tolerance levels for different types of stressors and challenges, just like we have different tolerance levels for spices, noise, or alcohol; it is not a reflection of our worth or potential, it is just a scale of current stress tolerance level. A level of tolerance is only a problem if it causes distress. And even if we have a very high tolerance level, there are times in life which simply push us past that limit.
When a challenge raises our stress level into a heightened distress rather than a manageable stress, it begins to set off nervous system reactions either enacting the “Fight/Flight” instinct, or the “Freeze/Fawn/Collapse” instinct (think deer in headlights, or possum playing dead). These states range in severity, but the more intense they become, the less we feel any ability to manage our stress, and the less connection we feel to ourselves. When we have frequent or severe triggers into the Fight/Flight state, we experience anger and anxiety symptoms. With frequent or severe Freeze/Fawn reactions, we begin to feel hopeless and depressed, detached, numb, or dissociative.
I want to reiterate: anxiety, depression, and other nervous system dysregulation are our body’s response to our own distress, NOT a response to the stressor itself. It is an automatic and unconscious physical reaction to being outside of our Window of Tolerance, causing our nervous system to activate a survival response. Mental illness and associated physical illness (GI issues, heart problems, chronic pain, insomnia, etc.) don’t result from a single trauma but rather from remaining chronically outside of our window of tolerance and in an activated nervous system state of hyper- or hypo-arousal.
Our Window of Tolerance is like our comfort zone, yet it doesn’t always have to feel comfortable. Tolerance is not about feeling totally relaxed or happy about something, it is about feeling capable of handling it. Leaving that window of tolerance is about moving from the feeling of “I can handle it” to “I can’t handle it” and entering into survival mode.
“I can handle it” is an internal belief which defines our window of tolerance. It is about feeling a relative amount of calm, confidence, and connection to ourself and others while feeling stressed.
The farther or the more frequently we are pushed outside of our Window of Tolerance, the more dysregulation, dysfunction, and distress we experience.
Why does this matter? Because therapy, healing, and resiliency in general need to be understood as not only relief from distress symptoms but also as building greater stress tolerance.
It is a natural instinct to want to return to our comfort zone. To accommodate our distress and avoid triggers, to shield ourselves and our kids from discomfort. Sometimes those are the right steps to take when we need a break and some relief.
But healing, growth, and resiliency are about more than relief: it’s about expanding our Window of Tolerance. The cure for distress, dysfunction, and dysregulation is not about ridding our lives of stressors, it is about increasing our sense of self-efficacy. It’s believing “I can handle it,” and retaining a sense of calm, confidence, and connection in the face of inevitable challenges.
The more we are able to expand our Window of Tolerance, the more we will experience mental wellness rather than illness, and success rather than symptoms. The key to resiliency is in widening our window.
Read on to my next blog on How to Widen your Window of Tolerance!