Are you feeling anxious, angry, scared, unsettled, or unsafe?
With all that is happening in our world today, it’s not surprising if you can choose at least one of these words to describe how you are feeling—if not all of them. You may not be aware of how on edge you really are until some small event causes you to react in a way that isn’t healthy or that you may regret. Ever hear of road rage? Of someone “lashing out” in anger?
One of the first things I introduce to my clients is the window of tolerance (WOT). It’s something we refer to and use often in our sessions. Especially now, many of my clients feel anxious, angry, and/or are grieving. I’m constantly reminded of how useful the WOT is, and I’d like to share it with you.
Below is a terrific visual to help you see how it works and why I think it’s important for everyone to be aware of it. (You can click on the image to make it larger.)
This concept was first introduced by Dr. Dan Siegel.
You’ll notice the word trauma is used in the chart. Trauma is on a spectrum and what is a trauma to you might not be to someone else and vice versa. What matters is how an event affects you!
When something happens that triggers you out of the WOT your brain perceives it as danger and your survival instinct—the fight, flight, or freeze response, takes over. The fight/flight response causes hyper-arousal (above the window) and the freeze response elicits hypo-arousal (below the window). When this innate instinct takes over, your pre-frontal cortex, the thinking, logical part of your brain shuts down. You aren’t able to think logically, you can only feel and react.
This is why people can suddenly “snap” and lash out in anger at something that may seem innocuous at other times. Pent-up anxiety and anger can cause this. We’ve all heard, or have said ourselves, “I don’t know what came over me.”
a window can be wide open or closed tight.
If our Window of Tolerance is open, we have the space to be able to think and feel at the same time.
If it’s closed, we are coming from a place of pure reaction to external events.
If you look at the WOT chart you see the optimal zone of arousal (the ability to feel and think at the same time). Ideally, this is where we’d like to be all the time. If you’re becoming hyper-aroused, your breathing may become rapid and shallow or you might feel your heart begin to race. Conversely, you may feel avoidant or want to zone out if you’re becoming hypo-aroused. Listen to your body—it will tell you if the window is closing.
So what can you do to stay in the window? Or bring yourself back into it?
There are many options, but the first thing I’d recommend is to take a deep slow breath in. Then exhale all the way, counting if you can. Do this several times. Think of the old adage: count to ten before you respond. Once you become familiar with the WOT, you can gain the ability to become aware that you’ve been triggered by something (which happens in seconds).
Many of my clients keep a copy of the WOT on their refrigerator or take a photo to keep on their phones for reference.
I hope this is helpful for you, too.
Wishing you peace and calm.
Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC, is an author and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she specializes in trauma, grief and loss. Her award-winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope combines her personal story of devastating loss with practical insights and simple suggestions for healing. Join her Facebook community, Grief to Gratitude, and follow her on Instagram.