The window of tolerance (for stress)

What is your window of tolerance for stress? Is it narrow, causing you to respond with fear or anger? Or is it wide, allowing you to manage the majority of everyday stressors?

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Stress is inevitable. How we react to it can depend on many things, like whether we’re hungry, tired, in pain, afraid, overwhelmed or confused. Some days we can effectively manage many stressors at once and other times a seemingly minor stressor can trigger a fight, flight or freeze response. 

How wide or narrow our threshold for stress is can be referred to as our “Window of tolerance”. 

Everyone’s window of tolerance can increase or decrease anytime.

A depiction of the Window of tolerance described below.

When you’re stressed and overwhelmed, you can get pushed out of your window of tolerance. You may have a flight or fight reaction where what you say or do may be more aggressive or impulsive than normal. Or you might have a freeze reaction where you’re unable to respond in the way you normally would, or shut down. 

We don’t consciously choose how our nervous system will react to stressors. These natural reactions may make it more challenging to manage thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in the moment. 

Recognizing your reaction to stress can help you manage and cope with the emotions that arise or know when to reach out for support. Once you’re aware of how you’re reacting to stress, you may be able to  increase your window of tolerance, or it may help you to manage your circumstances so you can return to within your window of tolerance.

Fight or flight response (Hyperarousal)

When you exceed your window of tolerance, you may enter the fight or flight response.

  • You might feel anxiety, panic, anger, rage, hypervigilance, emotional flooding, restlessness, and/or racing thoughts
  • Your body wants to run (flight) or fight to get away from the situation or how you’re feeling
  • This may impact your relationships and your ability to work, relax, sleep, eat, digest food, and/or manage your emotions. All of this can have a huge effect on your health.

Optimal stress response (Window of tolerance)

  • Your ideal place is where you can deal with and adapt to whatever’s going on
  • As stressors build, you’re able to manage thoughts, emotions and actions to stay within or return to your window of tolerance. 
  • Here you can:
    • Process information
    • Think, feel, and talk about your experience
    • Connect with others
    • Feel relaxed and energized at the same time 

When your window of tolerance is narrow, you’re more likely to be stressed out often.
When your window of tolerance is wide, you’re able to deal with more of life’s challenges.

Freeze response (Hypoarousal)

When you drop below your window of tolerance, you may enter the freeze response

  • You might feel numb, frozen, distracted, disconnected, depressed, exhausted, hopeless, or unable to feel emotions and/or think clearly. It may feel like you’re on autopilot, just getting through the day
  • Your body might slow down to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Your reflexes and response times may be affected, making you more prone to accidents or injuries
  • This may impact your appetite, digestion, and/or ability to stay awake during the day

Widen your window of tolerance

Help yourself get back into, or expand, your window of tolerance with some of these practical strategies:

In the moment

  • Take a short break 
  • Name it to claim it: say what is happening out loud 
  • Orient yourself to time and space: Say today’s date, your location, and what you’re doing out loud
  • Wrap yourself in a blanket, or put on some cozy clothes
  • Splash water on your face, hold ice in each hand or take a shower, bath or cold plunge

Get back to your window of tolerance

  • Connect with someone you feel safe with –a friend, a family member, or a professional
  • Use mindfulness-based audio or videos including:

Expand your window of tolerance

  • Be deliberate about healthy choices related to nutrition, exercise, sleep and social connections. 
  • Name, claim and reframe. Use the Name, claim and reframe process to help develop a strategy for when you move out of your window of tolerance.
  • Resilience. This resource helps you develop healthy coping strategies to deal with life's challenges.
  • Managing stress. Explore the many tips and strategies and choose those you feel could help you manage your reactions to stress and protect your well-being. 

Adapted in part by Sarah Kinsley, RCC based on the work of Dr. Daniel Segal who created the WOT model. Information also from Ogden, Minton, Parsanishi, NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behaviour Medicine).

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2022 to present

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