When young Halina arrives at a familiar playground, she immediately runs toward her favorite slide. When another family shows up with a large dog, the child runs back to her watching parent for reassurance. Her body moves smoothly between exploration and retreat, activation and settling.
Secure home base
Someone who has access to a secure home base can explore and take risks more freely. Their body gets to practice moving between agitation and calm, first with other people (co-regulation) and then on their own (internalized co-regulation). Our nervous systems are meant to regulate in the company of trusted other people. Once Halina receives reassurance, she can play freely again.
Someone whose home base is unreliable or actively dangerous has to expend more energy to find and maintain calm. They have less energy available to explore and take risks, and their nervous system gets less practice moving back into regulation. Without reassurance, Halina might have frozen in fear and stopped playing, or left the playground.
Window of tolerance
A person’s window of tolerance is their flexible range of activation and settling. Inside it, they can maintain emotional regulation, think clearly, and function effectively. One person might be comfortable with a wide range of strong emotions and chaotic environments, knowing that they can return to a calm state. Another person might be overwhelmed by a much lower level of inner distress or external disruption.
Our window of tolerance is determined by a combination of genetics, early experiences, current sources of support, and current sources of stress. A secure home base expands the window of tolerance by providing ongoing support and safety.
An experience is traumatic when we get pushed too far out of our window of tolerance and we lack the support to recover. If there was too much trauma and not enough safety growing up, we might habitually live outside our window of tolerance.
As we heal, we learn to recognize our window of tolerance, stay inside it when we can, and find it again after getting overwhelmed or frozen.
Inside and outside
Inside our window of tolerance, we respond to the present moment in an embodied way. Emotions flow, peak, and ebb away. There is a sustainable balance between activity and rest. We have ample capacity to manage everyday events, with capacity left over to handle surprises. We can sense our breath moving in our body. We feel the ground under our feet.
Outside the window of tolerance, there is a feeling of breathlessness, free fall, barely making it through, being stretched past bearing. In response to being overwhelmed, there might be dissociation, freeze, and shutdown, or there might be unmanageable emotions and distress. Time might pass very fast, or very slowly, or in disconnected chunks.
If our window of tolerance is narrow, there might be a sharp divide between experiences that feel just right and ones that feel all wrong. A wider window of tolerance allows more experiences to feel good enough.
Notice and allow
Notice and allow your current experience. If you live in constant breathless Emergency Mode, simply acknowledge that. As you track how you feel, you might notice variations in intensity, even if you do not get all the way to calm.
If you have been working on healing for a while, you might be surprised to notice that you spend more time inside your window of tolerance than outside. The shift might be quieter and less dramatic than you expected. Over time your window of tolerance becomes spacious enough to handle some triggering, although flashbacks often bring remembered overwhelm with them.
Limits and needs
Take note of what helps you stay in balance and what pushes you into overwhelm. Over time, you will gain a sense of your limits and needs. When you notice you feel overwhelmed or shut down or close to the edges of your tolerance, seek out what helps you move toward calm. Your nervous system might like contact with someone you trust, or feeling a cool breeze on your skin, or admiring some vividly colorful flowers, or resting in a quiet, dark room. What helps you orient in the present? Keep a running list of what adds peace to your life.
For some people, inviting the out-breath to be longer than the in-breath can bring calm. For others, forcing the breath to change increases stress. You can experiment with taking a deep breath, then exhaling on a long “ssssssss.”
Familiar and trusted
Your nervous system needs a home base, an anchor, a safe place to rest and recover. Everyone deserves a safe home and safe people to be with. Sadly, sometimes people can be sources of danger rather than safety, and many people lack safe homes.
Notice what you already use as an anchor, something familiar and trusted. It might be your home and family, a larger community, or a beloved pet. It might be as small as a stone in your pocket, or the backpack you carry everywhere, or your phone. A particular story might be your anchor, or music that resonates in your bones, or that one path you like to walk, or the local library with the kind librarians.
How does your body respond when you bring your anchor to mind? You might feel a deeper breath, softer shoulders, a smile, a sense of warmth, an overall feeling of relief.
When you live comfortably inside your window of tolerance most of the time, you can turn your attention to exploration. Walk a new path, try a new hobby, reach out to a new person or an old friend. Monitor your window of tolerance, and return to your anchor when your system needs calming. Stay within reach of your comfort zone, the way Halina keeps her trusted parent in sight at the playground.
Whether the pandemic has imposed too little change or too much, it has pushed most of us out of our comfort zones. As the delta variant sweeps through, it requires ongoing reevaluation of our risks and adaptations. Lean on your familiar and trusted anchors to help you through.
- “For the Tired and Wired of 2020” by Maggie Truelove, SEP. Examples of being inside and outside the window of tolerance.
- “Live Within Your Window of Tolerance” by Laura Kerr, PhD. Tips and tools for staying inside your window of tolerance.
- “The Myth of Self Regulation” 1 hour video by Bonnie Badenoch, PhD, relational neuroscience expert.