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Opening Your Window of Tolerance

Tired of diagnoses and pharmaceuticals? Why not try a transformational healing approach that only requires a shift in perspective? Leading up to Mental Health Awareness week, we sat down with Helix Healthcare Group’s clinical director, Dr. Jesse Hanson, to learn about the ground-breaking science behind the window of tolerance.

What is the window of tolerance?

Dr. Dan Siegel coined the term window of tolerance to refer to the optimal state of physiological functioning that exists in between states of hyper-arousal (upper ledge of window) and hypo-arousal (lower ledge of window). Within the window of tolerance, you have calm energy, quiet confidence, and motivated focus. According to Dr. Marie Dezelic, the window of tolerance is characterized by the four Cs: calm, cool, collected, and connected.

That’s right—the window of tolerance is your comfort zone. Within the window of tolerance, you are in control—over your emotional and mental state, interactions with others, and reactions to stress. Not only that, but in the face of significant stress, you are able to self-soothe and cope in a mature, healthy way. In the window of tolerance, you have psychological flexibility, greater resilience, and adaptability—the bedrocks of psychological and physical well-being.

Why is the window of tolerance important?

Within the window of tolerance, you express your authentic self, and you derive greater meaning and satisfaction from life. Learning to live within the window of tolerance has at least three major benefits:

Optimized Productivity: Think about the last time you were “in the zone.” Were you apathetic and tired? Were you anxious and restless? No. Most likely you were in between these two states, in a comfortable state of arousal.

In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the highly efficient, exhilarating state of flow, in which masters of their craft lose track of time while fully consumed in a task that is the perfect combination of challenge and skill. Learning how to achieve a state of flow is an art. This high level of functioning exists within the window of tolerance.

Increased Happiness and Zen

The window of tolerance goes beyond productivity. It is only possible to find happiness and zen within this window. In the window of tolerance, you gain satisfaction from your work. This satisfaction and meaning is what separates humans from robots. A positive emotional connection to your life’s work is crucial to happiness and zen. 

Healing from Trauma

The window of tolerance is the equilibrium you need to heal from past trauma. In contrast, being wound too tight (hyper-arousal) or indifferent (hypo-arousal) fuels the vicious cycle of trauma. But learning to find your comfort zone, increase your coping skills, and regulate your emotions allows you to move on from past trauma. Even if trauma is your past, it is not your destiny.

Why does the window of tolerance become narrow?

You might have been born with your window of tolerance wide open, but stressors and traumas have taken their toll, leaving it barely cracked open. Specifically, the following all-too-common traumas work to shut the window of tolerance:

  1. Negative, critical self-talk
  2. Sexual abuse or other physical abuse
  3. Emotional abuse and manipulation
  4. Neglect and other developmental traumas
  5. Authoritarian parents
  6. Perfectionism and/or pressure to over-perform
  7. Hectic lifestyle
  8. Bullying and other forms of intolerance and prejudice
  9. Deeply embarrassing situation
  10. Accidents and natural disasters
  11. Death of a loved one
  12. Separation from loved ones
  13. War
  14. Stressful diagnosis
  15. Ending of a relationship

How can I widen my window of tolerance?

Good question! It is entirely possible to widen your window of tolerance. The first step is awareness. Too many people live their entire lives fixed in or fluctuating between the states of hyper- or hypo-arousal—without even realizing it. To widen the window of tolerance, identify key physiological features of hyper- and hypo-arousal, including:

Hyper-arousal:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Emotional outbursts
  3. Anger and aggression
  4. Fixation and obsession
  5. Disordered eating
  6. Addictions
  7. Impulsivity
  8. Intrusive thoughts or images

Hypo-arousal:

  1. Dissociation
  2. Depersonalization
  3. Amnesia
  4. Apathy
  5. Not present
  6. Emotionally unavailable
  7. Emotional zombie (flat affect)
  8. Disconnection from self and emotions
  9. Autopilot
  10. Lack of motivation

Once you have identified your current or predominant state, you can work to widen the window.

How Helix Helps

At Helix Healthcare Group, we offer meditation, mindfulness, and yoga workshops to help anchor you in the present moment and reconnect your mind and body.  But going beyond that, if you are willing to dig deeper to address past traumas, we offer talk-based psychotherapy, as well as somatic (mind-body) therapy.

If you are hyper-aroused, our well-trained psychotherapists will help you recognize triggers in your life and help you develop coping skills to address them. If you are hypo-aroused, you will discover various forces (i.e., school, work, your inner critic) that have suppressed your passion and zest for life. Then you can reconnect with that long lost part of you.

The window of tolerance is a well-researched, clinically-proven paradigm. It is not a diagnosis; it is simply a practical, effective pathway to healing. At Helix, our goal is to influence the wider culture to recognize and be sensitive to others’ window of tolerance, ultimately reducing the burden of trauma. It all starts with you. If you want to widen your window of tolerance and improve overall functioning, ask Helix for help today!

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