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The Window of Tolerance

I’m a big believer in knowledge = power. If we can understand ourselves body and soul, we can make a change, it feels good to be able find our way back to centre. I’ve found the Window of Tolerance such a helpful concept.

Developed by Dr Dan Siegel it illustrates the experience of our unique emotional range. It’s useful to help us visualise what we can comfortably process and integrate as we interact with the world and our own emotions.

When we’re too long or too often outside our comfortable range, our thinking and behaviour can be disrupted.

The goal is to observe when we are moving through each nervous system state and know how to stay within, or safely get back to, our Window of Tolerance. It’s like coming home to ourselves. In time we can learn to widen the window.

Our optimal state (ventral vagal) is about social engagement. We use words like safe and connected to describe how we may feel in this state. Also, calm and regulated, in flow and ease. We rest and digest here, we’re creative. We choose healthy coping mechanisms. Think about what this might feel like for you.

Our hyper arousal state (sympathetic nervous system) is about flight and flight, we’re activated, mobilised. We sense cues of danger, we panic, we experience this state as too much, there may be interpersonal conflict, we feel unsafe, breathless, we’re hypervigilant. Too long here is what burn out can feel like.

Our hypo arousal state (dorsal vagal) is numb, collapsed, immobilised. It can be despairing and hopeless. We choose unhealthy coping mechanisms. We’re checked out and things feel heavy. This feels like flat energy, being spaced out, frozen. Quiet. Needing stillness.

We can go to the edges of these states many times in a day. Our nervous system is resilient and can handle this. We can go to our edge and cope and come back, understanding what’s happening and managing our responses.

But when we’ve experienced trauma (and let’s face it most of us have), we can become dysregulated.

Hypo arousal is where I tend to go although I recognise hyper arousal very well.

We can also start in one state and then move to another.

We can’t sustain either of these two states for too long before we disconnect and can’t think clearly.

We need different ways to regulate our emotions. I’m going to write more about how in my email tomorrow, you can sign up for it here.

But in short, hyper arousal can be met with grounding. Settling into ourselves, bringing the energy down. Which also starts by recognising the state we’re in. removing ourselves from a situation, placing our hands on our heart, breathing deeply, exhaling long and slow. Having a glass of water or a hot drink.

Hypo arousal can be met with energy. I need to move, dance, walk around the block, co-regulate by talking with someone I love, even about the weather. I need to literally shake off the funk, feel my blood flow and allow nature or music to bring me back.

We can come home to the feeling of safety, like we’re at home in the world and in our bodies.

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