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What Is Your Window of Tolerance?

Jan 26, 2022

Bhanu Joy Harrison, LCSW, SEP, Adjunct Faculty Member
Navigating Trauma​: Mindful Skills to Enhance Safety & Regulation

As we all know, there is a tremendous level of stress in the world at large right now.  Trauma is showing up in many areas of our lives and in the lives of our clients.  How do we navigate in this world right now, to attend to our balance and regulation?

The window of tolerance, a concept developed by Dan Siegel (1999), is defined as a zone that exists between the extremes of hyper and hypo-arousal. It is the zone of optimal arousal or readiness for life or focus for the activity at hand.  Dysregulated arousal, swinging uncontrollably between hyper and hypo-arousal, is exhausting and occurs when we are overwhelmed or traumatized.

The window of tolerance is a helpful mindfulness and coaching tool to increase awareness and self-regulation. Our body provides cues signaling when we are in or out of our window. Understanding these cues and choosing appropriate activities and practices helps us stay in our window.

‘Embodying resources’ is a skill to help bring us back to our window of tolerance (Levine, 1997). A resource can be any activity, interaction, quality (faith, perseverance, strength) that creates a sense of connection, calm and safety. Talking with friends, going for a walk, meditating, cooking, dancing, creating art, and noticing beauty around us are a few examples of resources that can nourish our nervous system.

Practicing any of these activities can reduce stress and decrease burnout while adding richness and depth to life experiences. When dysregulated and out of our window, it can be difficult to think of resources, so it is good practice to write a personalized list beforehand. For example, a client was overwhelmed with grief over the sudden death of her husband. She was distraught, had difficulty concentrating, and was exhausted from crying. Upon the suggestion of creating a resource list, she wrote down activities she could do when she got too dysregulated from grief. She put these in a Mason jar on her dining room table with a taped image of an orange life jacket. When needed, she would reach in and pull out a strip of paper with a resource and do that activity. ‘Drink some water’. ‘Look at the sky’. ‘Take a deep breath’. ‘Put your hand on your heart’. She felt like she put on her lifejacket of resources to ride the tsunami of grief without getting pulled under. This process gave her strength to go through the grieving process and over time, increased her ability to function.

Embodying resources not only builds resilience, it helps bring us back into our window of tolerance and greater ventral vagal activity, mitigating some of the harmful effects of trauma.

Over time, ‘taking in the good’ can rewire the brain and help override the brain’s innate response to attend more to negative or traumatic experiences, the negativity bias. The key is to pay attention to the body sensations arising from these resources , not just think about them. Paying attention to sensations is the doorway into regulation and a more balanced ventral vagal state.

Practice: Bring a resource to mind.  Imagine that you are actually in that experience.  Flesh out the sensory details: what environment are you in, who is with you, what is the quality of sound or light and so on.  Next, notice what begins to happen in your body when you imagine this resource.  Does your breath change?  Is your heart rate different?  What’s happening in your muscles or your belly?  Stretch out the goodness of these sensations for at least 12-16 seconds. This practice will enhance your neuroplasticity and help you mitigate the effects of stress and trauma in your life.  

Navigating Trauma​: Mindful Skills to Enhance Safety & Regulation

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