Most of us have experiences where we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed and out-of-control or (alternatively) completely despondent, lacking motivation, and frozen. It can even feel like we have no control over ourselves or our feelings in these moments! This is particularly true if a person has a history of overwhelming, challenging, or traumatic experiences. There is a conceptual tool that therapists use called the Window of Tolerance that helps to identify a person’s present ability to tolerate or manage their emotional experiences and begin building that tolerance. There is a great video here for which I take NO credit (mad props to the therapist which created this video and its content) which does a great job of explaining how this works.
The TL;DR version is essentially this:
We all operate within a “window” of experiences which we find tolerable and manageable and this window is shaped and influenced by our lived experiences. Some experiences close this window and we find ourselves subject to being overwhelmed or shut down in response to experiences as they become intolerable or outside our window.
When this happens, we find ourselves either hyper-aroused (on-edge, irritable, overwhelmed, angry, anxious, etc.) or hypo-aroused (frozen, dissociated, numb, depressed, shut-down, etc.) Part of therapy is learning to expand this window so that we can tolerate challenging or difficulties emotional experiences without becoming overwhelmed or shutdown. I wanted to offer a few ideas about practices in which we can engage to help expand this window:
1) Exercise:Exercise, in general, has a number of benefits for our mental health and is often times an important part of a strong self-care regiment. It helps to balance the neurotransmitters and hormones in our body which regulate a vast number of internal systems, it keeps us strong, it increases our heart-rate variability, and it can be a mindfulness practice. It also, secretly, teaches us that we can do difficult things – we may not start out running an 8 minute mile, but with practice and persistence we can hit our physical health goals.
2) Mindful Meditation:Mindfulness can be brought to any daily experience and is essentially the practice of being fully present. I often teach this to clients by having them observe their emotional reaction, notice the accompanying physical sensations, make note of the thoughts associated with this emotion and physical reaction, and then return to their breath as an anchor to the present. They can further expand this practice by noting how all of this impacts their world and relationships; a core-part of mindfulness is interconnectedness and relatedness. Mindfulness teaches us how to observe and experience our emotions without the need to respond or react.
3) Breathing Exercises:Breathing is a pretty fundamental aspect of living. It also happens to be a conscious and unconscious process. When we learn to regulate and control our breathing, we can actually learn to re-take control of our nervous systems and help prevent it from becoming overwhelmed or checking-out. Try creating a triangle or square with your breath (inhale, hold, exhale or inhale, hold, exhale, hold all in equal parts) and notice how you respond or inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 6 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. All of these exercises send messages from our lungs to our brains helping it to self-sooth and de-escalate.
4) Yoga:Yoga is essentially the combination of all the elements I have reviewed above. It has a ton of benefits and little-to-no drawbacks or risks. That being said, and the same applies to exercise above, always consult with a physician before beginning any new physical activity.
5) Seek Support:When we are young, we learn to grow and expand our Window of Tolerance through our relationships with our care-givers. Their ability to self-regulate, self-sooth, and tolerate our emotions helps us learn how to do the same. Therapy often serves as a place where clients can re-learn or re-experience this process. No, your therapist is not your parent (though if you feel similarities that isn’t unusual), but they can serve as a safe place to discuss and experience difficult emotions without having to manage them on your own.
If you find that your Window of Tolerance has been negatively impacted because of past experiences, COVID19 stress, current experiences with racial trauma, or because life is stressful and you’d like to talk with someone then I encourage you to reach out to our front desk. Our staff can help you get connected to a compassionate therapist who can help!