Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry and author, coined the term “Window of Tolerance.” It is now commonly used to describe normal brain/body reactions, especially following adversity. “It is the optimal zone of arousal where we are able to manage and thrive in everyday life.” You can think of it like your comfort zone.
An optimal nervous system self-regulates and keeps us “inside” our window of tolerance. What this means is that we are able to tolerate the natural ups and downs of our emotions. We may experience anxiety, hurt, pain, and anger that take us close to the edges of that window, but we are still able to regulate our emotional state.
When we are “outside” our window of tolerance, our nervous system responds by going into survival mode. In this state of fight, flight, or freeze we get emotionally hijacked, and the ebb and flow of our emotions feel intolerable. We are unable to regulate our fluctuating emotional states.
This Window of Tolerance Concept is Very Important in Understanding Anxiety
When anxiety or fear arises, or any intense emotions for that matter, the first thing we need to recognize is whether we are inside or outside our window of tolerance.
We all know, once outside of our window, reactivity rules. Our rational brain is off-line. We are not skillful or resourceful, kind, or compassionate. When we feel flooded and emotionally charged, our default and go-to settings are ego-based and fear-driven.
In these reactive moments, while we may know better—we cannot do better. It’s as if we’re in a trance-like state hooked into preconditioned thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that feel fixed and rigid.
What You Can Do When You’re Outside the Window
In these circumstances, when we are clearly outside of our window, having a short-list of “best practices” on hand can serve as our life preserver. Building a toolkit with our top three or even five most reliable and predictable tools is game-changing. We need something quick to grab onto to gain some level of control—a place of true refuge where we can feel safe.
As we begin to build this toolkit, there is really only one criterion we need to consider. When outside of our window, our best practices have to be all about grounding our body first.
In moments of extreme distress, the following tools have proven to be most helpful:
- Grounding Skills: Take deep slow breaths, notice your feet connecting with the ground, move fingers and wiggle toes, notice and label objects in the room, touch things around you, notice something you smell/hear
- Self-Soothe through Touch: Put your hand on your heart/belly
- Resourcing: Bring to mind a nurturing person, scene, memory, phrase to evoke some sense of safety, love, or belonging. (For example: I imagine being with my grandfather, walking on a quiet beach, seeing my child smiling. I say things like, “I’m scared and that’s okay.”)
What You Can Do When You’re Inside the Window
We also want a short-list of best practices to have on hand when we are inside our window to become more emotionally flexible so we can learn how to widen that window. This will allow us to enjoy more smooth sailing with a calmer nervous system that is less easily triggered.
There are a few criteria to consider for building this toolkit. These tools have to be able to help us calm the mind, allow our emotions, and commit to values-based behavior.
Tools to help us self-regulate when we’re in the window can even be fun and creative. After all, thoughts are merely strings of words strung together by you. If you created them, then you can have some fun “un-creating” them so they lose their power and can no longer activate the same levels of distress.
A few of my favorite ways to unhook from unwanted thoughts and uncomfortable emotions:
- Dimmer Switch: Imagine a dimmer switch in your mind and use it to adjust the volume, intensity, boldness of the thoughts you’re obsessing around. (For example: Hurtful words, critical feedback, negative judgments, name-calling…)
- Blackboard & Eraser: Imagine a blackboard and use it to write out the anxious message that you are playing back on repeat. Then take an eraser and erase parts of it.
- Name that Story: Your mind is a master storyteller. Naming your top stories helps to tame them. (For example: “Thanks, Safety Story, but I’ve got this,” or “Ah, here’s my Unworthiness Story…time to put you back on the shelf.”)
This is What I Know to be True about Best Practices
We have to define our favorites for ourselves, so they are emotionally meaningful to us and shaped by our life experience. A top ten generic list can never be as helpful as our own hand-picked top three. We have to be able to consider the research and the opinions of others and test them over time, so we can handpick and even create the ideal ones for us.
My Challenge for you today is to BUILD THAT LIST!
And, we have to build this shortlist ahead of time, and when times are good. Practicing strategies when we’re calm and on a regular basis will build our capacity to access them when needed. The key is figuring out what works best and when. This is what will define them as our “best practices.” Over time, they can become so tried and true that they will prove to be almost 100% reliable and effective.
PS – In addition, I also highly recommend that you share your list with loved ones so they can support you by reminding you of your best practices.