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The Window of Tolerance. Picture of a window partially covered by curtains, with a plant sitting on the windowsill.

The Window of Tolerance

November 11, 2019 | Anxiety, Awareness, General

My last two posts have been about anxiety and how we begin to work with it. In the latter, I mention that I think of self-regulation as hijacking what is happening to our brains to help us come back to a place of calmness. Add to this returning to curiosity, and capacity to manage what is going on.

To be in this magical place is to be within what we can tolerate. It’s the place of experience where we can both think and feel. To understand this concept better, let me describe the Window of Tolerance, a concept coined by Dr. Dan Siegel.

The intensity of our experience is always changing. Depending on what is happening around us and within us, our feelings will go up and down throughout the day. This constant change, basically, means you’re alive and responsive.

Everyone has the capacity of responding to an event with such intensity, that we cross a threshold and lose the ability to think. Some people react to this intensity by completely shutting down, or losing the ability to feel. Both extremes cause problems. If you can’t feel, you can’t relate to others and, sometimes, you can’t make decisions because nothing matters enough; in some cases, you may dissociate and have a problem connecting not only to others, but to reality. If you can’t think, your feelings take over and, at times, the experience of it can be overwhelming or terrifying, as it can feel like you’ve lost control.

We know we are within the range of what we can tolerate because we can both think and feel. Being within this range is incredibly important to have access to all the precious information that our body is giving us: we need to think to direct our awareness and process what’s happening, and we need to feel to have something to process.

Knowing how to stay within the range of what you can tolerate is the first step in therapy. It helps us stay in a place where we have access to observing and managing our experience which, in turn, leads to change.

Lastly, keep in mind these two things:

  • Different things can trigger you to move out of your window of tolerance. You can use grounding skills to return to it.
  • Stress and trauma can shrink the window of what you can tolerate. This can cause you to be extremely responsive to what is happening, and to move very quickly to a place where you can’t think or feel. This fast change can be overwhelming in itself, and it’s important to spend time expanding your window of tolerance. Therapy and the purposeful use of grounding techniques can help you expand the window again.

I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let the writing on my blog reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.

The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.

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