• Carrie Potter, MA, LMHCA

The Window of Tolerance

A concept that I use a lot in my work with clients is the “Window of Tolerance”. Dr Dan Siegel coined this phrase to describe the capacity of a person to handle ebbs and flows of circumstances, triggers, and feelings throughout the day.

Someone with a wide window of tolerance can deal with daily irritations in a way that is manageable. Sure, they might be frustrating or discouraging, but they stay in the realm of what you can pretty easily handle. Someone with a narrower window of tolerance might have those same daily irritations push them to the brink; whatever is going on just can’t be contained or managed, so stress hormones kick in and survival instinct takes over. This is when we see the fight-flight-freeze reactions commonly associated with stressful situations. Fight/flight might look like panic, high anxiety, fear, or anger. Freeze might look like depression, flat affect (i.e. no perceivable emotion), tiredness, or inability to engage or connect.

Imagine a day where you wake up feeling pretty good. Chances are things weren’t perfect all day long…maybe you burnt your toast, but you were able to laugh it off. Maybe your boss annoyed you, but you rolled your eyes and chalked it up to just part of the job. Maybe something actually went objectively badly, like you found out that you screwed up on a project, but you were able to deal with the crisis in a way that worked out, and even made you feel energized and accomplished. This is a day when your window of tolerance was pretty wide, and you had the capacity to handle everything that came your way. You were stressed out in moments but you were able to cope and calm yourself down relatively quickly.

Now let’s imagine a scenario when your window of tolerance was pretty narrow. Maybe you slept really badly the night before and you wake up tired and a bit “off”. That burnt toast resulted in a string of expletives. Your annoying boss spiked your anxiety to the level where you had to take an extra long lunch break to calm down, and even then you felt mildly panicked the rest of the day. Then you hear about the mistake you made on a project and you feel yourself crash. After some tears in the bathroom you simply check out for the rest of the day. You feel numb, disengaged, and lifeless. You leave work feeling like a failure, sure you’re going to get fired, and wondering how much longer you can keep going.

These scenarios help illustrate that circumstances certainly have an impact on our stress levels throughout the day, our window of tolerance has an arguably bigger impact. Things that impact our window of tolerance might be very practical, basic needs like sleep, hunger, how we are feeling physically, etc., and also include trauma, stress, and overall emotional health. Trauma and stress can shrink our window. This is why you might be finding yourself with a shorter fuse than normal during this pandemic – your window has closed a bit!

The good news is that we can work to improve our window of tolerance. This might look like sleep hygiene, making sure we are eating nourishing food that our body loves, exercising, etc. These are all ways that we tend to our bodies to widen that window a bit. We can also widen our windows by working to strengthen our emotional health. This might be through therapy or talking through our feelings in the presence of an empathetic other.