What is our Window of Tolerance and Why is it Important?

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW

Stress is something that every person reading this blog has experienced. On a basic level, when we experience stress it is because our nervous system is responding to a perceived threat. Our nervous system’s response to stress and anxiety is used as an effective way to survive, and if we think about why, it makes a lot of sense! If a caveman heard a weird sound outside their cave, who would be more likely to live, the cavemen who questioned the sound and responded with caution (stress response) or the one that was like “come on, it’s not a big deal, let’s see what is growling outside the cave?” Probably the one who took the steps to be aware of their surroundings, right? When we work in a job that requires us to be on all of the time, it is like our system is responding to ‘threats’ every day. I am sure that everyone can remember a day when it seemed like there was crisis after crisis without a break, and then when you got home, your body went into shut down mode. Totally normal–one day is only one day–but when we experience prolonged stress, this can affect our ability to get back to the middle where we are able to get home, do daily tasks, and live life in a regulated head space. Well, in this past year, we have experienced an extended period of time where EVERYONE has been stressed. I cannot say I can even come close to understanding the stress that nurses, doctors, and other medical staff have been experiencing over this past year. If you have been struggling to get those daily tasks done, have felt more on edge, or just can’t make a simple decision about what to eat for dinner, that is totally normal based on how long we have been experiencing the stress of the pandemic. In this post, I will review the window of tolerance and in the next post, I will talk about how to help support your nervous system when experiencing a long period of stress.  

The window of tolerance, hyper-arousal, and hypo-arousal are all different states our nervous system has based on our environment. Our window of tolerance is the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. When people are within this zone, they are typically able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty” (goodtherapy.org). Basically, when you are in a calm, regulated headspace, you are within your window of tolerance. This is where it is easiest to complete daily routines and regulate your emotions.

When we experience stress, we go into another state called hyper-arousal (fight or flight). This physiological response helps us react and stay alive during stressful times. When we get to the state of hyper-arousal, it is when we can feel overwhelmed or impulsive, experience anxiety, have difficulty sleeping, and feel hypervigilant. This is where you probably are when you are at work. Hypervigilance is needed when you work in an environment where a crisis can occur at any second.  

The other state is hypo-arousal. This is our ‘freeze’ response and this state can include feeling numb, hopeless, helpless, shut down, flat, and  disconnected with yourself and others. This response is, again, to save us when we are going through a stressful experience for a long period of time. With stressful jobs where we have to be ‘on’ all the time, usually at the end of the day we don’t get back down to our window of tolerance, we go all the way down to hypo-arousal.  

So, what can we do with this information? This information can help us just understand where we are at emotionally. If we don’t know where our nervous system is, it is much harder to meet our needs. Working in a job like nursing, it is important that you are more alert and ready for a quick change in the environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are out of your window of tolerance, it just means you are more alert! Now over the past year, the stress has been amplified because not only were there so many changes to our personal daily lives due to a world-wide pandemic, there is also another layer for you all because you are part of the healthcare workforce. In a normal year, your jobs are stressful and regulating your nervous system is hard, but this past year, it’s been amplified. So if you are reading this and are worried because you are in hyper- or hypo-arousal all the time and can’t remember the last time you were actually in your window of tolerance, there are ways you can work to get back to there! See my last blog about self care for some tips right now! My next blog will also focus on how to build your window of tolerance within a stressful job! Please comment with any questions you may have. 

I have also included two video resources (each less than 5 minutes) for a more detailed explanation of the window of tolerance!  

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