wake up on the right side of the bed, your coffee is brewed perfectly, and you feel ready to tackle the day ahead. Other days you find yourself running late, practicing the presentation you have to give to your boss in your head, wondering how you’ll make it to the other side. We all have good days and bad days, and we all have stressors we can handle and others that just prove to be too much. This framework around how we handle various stressors is called our “window of tolerance.”
Someone’s “window of tolerance” refers to the state in which they feel regulated, comfortable, safe, and able to function and succeed in everyday life. When one is outside their window of tolerance, they are either in a hyperaroused or hypoaroused state. While man
y people only enter these states in times of heightened stress and/or trauma, those with long-term or chronic trauma, as well as those dealing with PTSD, often find themselves outside their window of tolerance even when there is no active threat or stressor around.
In a hyperaroused state, anxiety is very high and your body is likely in fight-or-flight mode. This may present itself in ways such as an increased heart rate, perspiration, breathing rate, and muscle tension. Along with those more physical reactions, the brain releases hormones to aid your body in its response. One such hormone is Epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, which works in the short-term to signal your heart to pump harder and narrows less essential blood vessels, thus sending more blood to major muscle groups, increases blood pressure, and opens airways to the lungs to allow you to breathe in more air. The other common hormone is cortisol, which stimulates the liver to increase the production of blood sugar and helps the body convert proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into an energy boost your body can use during times of stress.
Alternatively, in a hypoaroused state, you may feel shut down or numb to your surroundings and have little motivation. In this state, your brain is still releasing many of the same hormones as in a hyperaroused state, but because your brain has recognized that you are unable to fight against or escape the threat at hand, our muscles clam up, and the brain stops taking in our environment and planning for an escape.
It can feel difficult to know when you’re outside your window until you’re well outside of it, but practicing recognizing your thoughts and the physical and emotional reactions you have to them can help you learn where your window is. When you’re starting to leave your window and feeling a bit anxious and/or uncomfortable, utilizing mindfulness techniques can help you find your way back into your window. To help regulate yourself when you’re hyper or hypoaroused, there are a few different approaches. When in hyperarousal, techniques like drinking a really cold drink, engaging in short bursts of intense exercise, and/or paced breathing exercises may be helpful in self-regulation. To help get out of a hypoarousal state, try engaging your senses (maybe light a nice smelling candle or listen to some music), taking a walk outside or even around your room, or focusing on the feeling of taking a few deep breaths.
Everyone’s window of tolerance is different, and learning where yours lies and how to navigate hyper and hypoarousal takes time, but with this knowledge of how it all impacts the body and coping strategies to try out, you’re already on your way to navigating it all just a bit more smoothly.