Manage emotions - Strategies to widen the window of tolerance
In the context of healing and recovery from trauma, widening the window of tolerance is a powerful tool to manage our emotions. As discussed in the blog post “Understanding the window of tolerance,” the window of tolerance is a state where an individual can effectively manage a range of emotional experiences without becoming overwhelmed. If we are outside of our window of tolerance, we experience either hyperarousal, associated with the fight and flight response and high emotional activation, or hypoarousal, associated with the freeze and fawn response and numbing. In this blog post, we will explore the factors that influence the window of tolerance and how we can work to expand it.
Childhood experiences reducing the window of tolerance
Our journey into increasing the window of tolerance begins in our childhood since the window of tolerance is shaped and developed in this phase. When we were born, we possessed a very small window of tolerance and relied on the support of adults to help us manage our emotions. Under ideal circumstances, the window of tolerance gradually expands as we grow up, allowing us to handle intense emotions such as depression, anxiety, or stress effectively.
This expansion requires and is nurtured by a caring environment, primarily through secure attachments with our caregivers. A secure attachment means that a child has an adult who can offer comfort, reassurance, and validation when the child feels intense emotions like upset or loneliness. These early caregiving experiences teach us the vital skill of self-soothing and how to regulate our nervous system. In this ideal environment, the window of tolerance widens over time just like a muscle strengthens with use.
However, reality often looks messy: many of us did not experience these ideal circumstances. If we lacked secure attachments or were exposed to childhood trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), our window of tolerance is likely to have expanded less. ACEs encompass various forms of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, all of which can significantly impact our capacity to cope with emotions. The symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people experience being stuck in either hypo- or hyperarousal, and some shift regularly between both states.
The power to change the window of tolerance
While we cannot change what has happened to us, we can learn to widen our window of tolerance. The journey to trauma recovery involves being curious about our current states - whether we are in our window of tolerance, hyperarousal, or hypoarousal - and actively working towards expanding our window of tolerance. Being outside of our window of tolerance can feel confusing and overpowering if we cannot understand it. Therefore, many of my clients find it empowering to understand what state their nervous system is in since they can find different strategies that are useful in each state. For example, journalling is a useful reflective practice if we are in our window of tolerance. If we are outside of it, it is more helpful to first apply practices to get back into our window of tolerance before we journal about it to cope with the emotions healthily.
Adult life experiences that reduce our window of tolerance
Apart from childhood experiences, our window of tolerance can increase or decrease throughout our lifetime. The following adult life experiences can play a role in narrowing it: Experiences of chronic stress, be it financial, relational, or workplace-related, can decrease the boundaries of the window of tolerance. Experiences of racism, discrimination, or marginalization can have the same effect since the constant stress may erode emotional resilience. Trauma and its many shades of grey can also throw us out of our window of tolerance. Additionally, environments that dismiss our emotions and stories - a concept known as traumatic invalidation - can reduce our window of tolerance and decrease our capacity to manage our emotions.
Furthermore, temporary factors like sleep deprivation, exhaustion, hunger, or looming work deadlines can momentarily shrink our window of tolerance. Since each individual will respond uniquely to these factors, the impact on the window of tolerance and emotional management may vary widely.
Widening your window of tolerance for emotional management
Understanding the factors that influenced the development of our window of tolerance is a significant element of a trauma-informed path to recovery. It is a reminder that while our past may have shaped us, we also hold the power to reshape our emotional coping and increase our well-being. Expanding our window of tolerance is not only a journey of self-discovery but also a testament to our capacity for growth, healing, and resilience. Recovery from trauma is a step-wise process and working with the window of tolerance and strategies for emotional management are usually part of the first phase of recovery. Many of my clients usually feel more empowered after they understand the responses of their autonomic nervous system better, have developed the capacity to recognize their states, and have tools to cope with intense emotions. A wider window of tolerance equates to increased emotional resilience. It empowers us to navigate life's challenges more effectively and improves our overall well-being.
“The first goal of trauma recovery should and must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis.”
Strategies to widen the window of tolerance
While it is often easy to describe these concepts rationally, transformation only happens if we apply them to our lives. Here are some ideas on how you can work with your window of tolerance:
Mindfulness to expand your window of tolerance
The first step in broadening your window of tolerance is to be curious and practice mindfulness. Start by simply checking in with yourself, without judgment. Ask yourself, “What do I notice inside?” And “What state am I in right now?" This curious self-inquiry lays the foundation for recognizing whether you are operating within the boundaries of your window of tolerance or experiencing hypo- or hyperarousal.
Strategies to return to your window of tolerance when in hyperarousal
Hyperarousal often manifests as agitation, anxiety, anger, or restlessness. Overall, our autonomic nervous system is highly activated and the intensity of the emotions is heightened. The goal of emotional management strategies in hyperarousal is to soothe and calm our nervous system.
Focus on your breathing A simple and effective method to manage emotions is to focus on your breathing. Pay attention to how your breath enters and exits your body. Place your hand on your body or belly and observe your breath without trying to change it. Over time, allow your breath to return to a natural, soothing rhythm.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Grounding technique Another valuable tool for hyperarousal is the "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding" exercise. Begin by assessing the intensity of your emotion on a scale from 0 to 10. Then, identify:
Five things you can see.
Four things you can feel
Three things you can hear.
Two things you can smell.
One thing you can taste.
After completing this exercise, reassess the intensity of your emotion. Evaluate what difference you notice.
Going for a walk For some people, going for a walk in nature can be a grounding and soothing experience. Take in the sights, sounds, and sensations of the environment. This practice helps you reconnect with the world around you and brings you back to your window of tolerance.
Strategies to cope with emotions when in hypoarousal
Hypoarousal often presents as numbness, dissociation, or a sense of disconnection. In general, the autonomic nervous system has a low level of activation if we are in hypoarousal. The goal here is to energize your nervous system and reestablish a sense of connection. Here are some practices you can experiment with if you are in hypoarousal:
Physical activity Some people activate their autonomic nervous system by engaging in physical activity, such as jumping jacks, push-ups, or planks. Find a physical activity that resonates with you, one that helps revitalize your nervous system. Some people feel very immobilized if they are in hypoarousal and find it challenging to move. On those occasions, it might be useful to find the smallest level of energizing your nervous system that you can manage. This might involve a short walk, yoga, stretching, or any movement that feels comfortable for you at the moment.
Upbeat music Upbeat music is another effective strategy to get out of hypoarousal. The music's rhythm can stimulate your nervous system and help you reconnect with your body. Alternatively, if you like to dance, you can dance to the sound of the music to add another method to stimulate your autonomic nervous system.
Cold water or ice cubes Some people find it helpful to either run cool water over their hands or touch an ice cube with their hands. For others, it can be helpful to take a shower.
Experimentation and customization
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind while working with grounding tools. Some strategies may work for one person but may not work for another. Sometimes, a tool is effective in managing one emotion but not every possible emotion. For example, 5,4,3,2,1 Grounding works well for me if I feel anxious but it doesn’t work well for shame. This doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you, it just means that it is not the right strategy to expand the window of tolerance for that moment. We are all different, therefore you must find strategies that work for you.
Repetition matters. Practice grounding as often as possible since change happens over time. Just like exercising, it is useful to start practicing when the emotions are at a lower level of intensity to start “building the muscle.” The more often you practice, the more likely it will be effective. If the tool doesn’t work immediately, repeat the tool for a longer period such as 20 to 30 min. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time, and sometimes, changes may be subtle in the beginning. Patience and consistency are key.
I invite you to experiment with these strategies and see what fits best to navigate your emotions. If a specific practice doesn't have the desired effect or makes you feel worse, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. It simply means that it might not be the right fit for you at that moment. Your path to healing is personal, and customization is essential for discovering what works best for managing your emotions.
As you embark on your journey of emotional management by using strategies to widen your window of tolerance, remember that it's okay to seek support and practice self-compassion. By integrating these strategies into your life, you empower yourself to respond to emotions with wisdom and grace, fostering a more fulfilling and balanced existence. Widening your window of tolerance is an essential aspect of healing and managing emotions. Cultivating self-awareness and applying strategies for both hyperarousal and hypoarousal can be transformative on your healing journey. Remember, your healing is unique, and what matters most is finding the tools and practices that resonate with you and support your well-being.
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Bright Horizon Therapies is located on the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy (comprising the Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai First Nations), the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda (including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations). This land is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. We acknowledge the traditional caregivers of the land and the importance of a commitment to continued decolonisation of our work.