Have you ever gotten into a very heated argument and said things you regret saying? Maybe you insulted the other person or knowingly said something false just to defend your point. If you have, you probably reached an emotional state outside your window of tolerance.
The "Window of Tolerance" is a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel that suggests we have an optimal arousal level (not too high or too low) where we're able to handle adversity successfully. When we are pushed outside the window of tolerance we get into a fight, flight or freeze state, which bring us to either a high level of arousal (hyperarousal) or a low level (hypoarousal).
In the states outside the window we lose control of ourselves and can say or do things that aren't in our best interest.
We may experience hurt, anxiety, pain or anger that brings us close to the edges of the window of tolerance but generally we are able to use strategies (consciously or subconsciously) to keep us within this window.
Having a narrow window or poor strategies that regulate your emotions makes it difficult to create or sustain a happy, healthy relationship. Expressing your feelings, communicating your thoughts, listening to your partner and treating them with compassion becomes difficult, if not impossible. It's highly likely you will experience intense emotions when it comes to relationships. Being able to regulate your emotions and bring yourself back within the window is a key relationship skill.
From our work with clients, we've observed that people only have the capacity to stay in one state for so long before the brain and body shift them - often without their awareness.
For example, if you're tolerating a great degree of pain, anxiety or fear for long enough, your mind and body will want to shut down and numb yourself from responding to the triggering stimuli. You may start taking depressants (like alcohol) or become overly avoidant or even stop experiencing your feelings all together. Similarly, if you stayed in a shut down state where you're emotionless, your mind/body will gravitate towards things that make you feel alive. You may engage in high risk activities or take stimulants or even self-harm. These subconscious regulating strategies can be harmful to yourself, others and your relationships.
Being mindful of your emotional state and broadening your self-awareness is the first step towards practicing emotional regulation in a healthy and effective way. By noticing unwanted changes in how you feel and how your body feels, you can identify what you need to feel right again. Below are some healthy activities you can do to regulate yourself.
Sample activities to decrease arousal include:
- Diaphragmatic breathing (deep and slow tummy breathing)
- Drinking from a straw
- Throwing a yoga ball at a blank wall or outside wall
- Putting on a weighted blanket
- Drinking warm water
- Shaking or stomping out excess energy
- Exercising (lifting, pulling, pushups, wheelbarrow races, crab walk, leap frog etc.)
- Listening to music (soothing and calming music and sounds)
- Eating comforting food
Sample activities to increase arousal include:
- Anything that stimulates the senses
- Smelling essential oils
- Eating chewy/crunchy food
- Taking a walk
- Sitting or bouncing on a therapy ball (simulating rocking motion)
- Sitting in a rocking chair
- Dancing and listening to music
Being mindful of your emotional state and regulating yourself effectively help widen your window of tolerance. You'll be less likely to get into a hyper or hypo arousal state and you'll have more control over your behavior.