Have you ever had a day when losing a sock can send you into an emotional tailspin? Or you forget to send an email, and it causes you to question your self-worth? Felt that you were overreacting to something, had no idea why and felt unable to stop?
You’re not alone.
We’ve all had days when seemingly small stressors cause outsized feelings. We have a surge of anger, frustration, fear or worry that seems to overtake our minds and bodies. This might be followed by a wave of exhaustion that makes us feel like the only thing we want to do is get back in bed.
What causes these feelings, and why can we handle them some days and not on others? According to Viva Center therapist Stacey Thompson, LICSW, one major reason could be that we’ve ventured outside our “Window of Tolerance.”
Coined by Daniel Siegel, the term “Window of Tolerance” is a concept that describes how our minds and bodies respond to stressful situations. When we are within our Windows, says Thompson, feelings like irritation, anger or anxiety are uncomfortable, but we can manage them and still function. In response to losing our sock, for example, we wear longer pants to hide our mismatched socks and head out to work, a little annoyed but able to move forward to the next thing in our day.
“Our Window of Tolerance is shaped by our life experiences, and each person’s is unique,” says Thompson. Traumatic experiences can narrow our Window. Other factors, such as social support, a sense of safety and tools for coping with our feelings can widen our Window.
It can be helpful to think of our Window as an empty glass and stress as the water that fills it up. As long as the glass is less than full, we can contain the water. However, when the glass is filled too high, the water overflows and makes a mess. The same is true with our ability to tolerate stress. When our metaphorical cup overflows, the stress overwhelms our coping mechanisms, and our fight, flight, or freeze responses kick in.
Fight and flight responses are both examples of hyperarousal, states in which our nervous systems react to information from our environments and prepare us for emergency action. When we are in a state of hyperarousal, our pupils dilate so we can take in more information from our surroundings, and our muscles tense so we can take quick action if needed. Since the beginning of time, these unconscious body reactions helped prepare us to protect ourselves. In our modern, day-to-day lives, hyperarousal may be exhibited through difficulty falling or staying asleep, feeling on edge, having trouble concentrating, and/or being irritable. A person who is hyperaroused may tear through their drawers to find their lost sock, rather than pick a new pair or wear longer pants.
In contrast, the freeze response is an example of hypoarousal, which occurs when our brain senses that it is not possible to fight off or escape from a threat, so the best solution is to numb ourselves to it. Hypoarousal is characterized by feeling disconnected, immobile, or emotionless. In our daily lives, it can present as chronic fatigue, difficulty thinking or responding to information, and/or feeling emotionally shut-down. A person in a hypoaroused state may view a lost sock as a sign the day will be terrible and crawl back into bed.
Understandably, we want to remain within our Window of Tolerance (or return to it as quickly as possible during times of stress) so we can avoid the negative effects of hypo and hyperarousal. Thompson recommends the following.
1) Working with a therapist. Research shows that psychotherapy is one of the most effective ways to widen the Window of Tolerance. This is especially true when we feel that a past trauma may be contributing to our stress. A therapist who practices with a trauma-informed approach can help change a client’s relationship to a traumatic experience and develop strategies to manage, and even overcome, negative thoughts and feelings. If you have any questions on trauma-informed therapy or would like to meet with a therapist for a free consult, you can email email@example.com.
Thompson suggests thinking back to how you may have coped with a stressful event in the past and ask yourself: When did you start to feel better? What were you doing when that positive change occurred? Could you try that again to see if it could help with the current situation?
You can experiment with different techniques to discover what works for you. For example, if you hate sitting still, don’t feel like you “have to” or “should” try meditating; you may discover that dance or yoga works better. Your friends and family may also have suggestions of approaches that work for them.
3) Mindfulness practice. Whether you have a therapist guiding you or you’re learning on your own, mindfulness techniques can help you return to the present moment when your emotions feel out of control. Mindfulness practice involves fully attending to the present moment: the room you’re in, the way your body feels, the way you’re using space, etc. Honing in on these details can help turn off the faucet when water is threatening to overflow our emotional cup. Some popular and simple mindfulness activities can be found right here.
Need assistance finding the technique that’s right for you? Feel free to contact Thompson via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Viva Center would also love to hear from you in our ongoing conversations about mental health on Twitter. Reach out to us—but only if you have space in your cup to do so, of course.