Mind-Body Health

The Window of Tolerance: Insight Into Nervous System Regulation

The Window of Tolerance: Insight Into Nervous System Regulation
Your alarm is blaring at you for the 50th time. You notice that it’s an hour past when you said you would arise. Your heartbeat begins to creep into panic mode. Your palms are sweaty. “I’m going to be late. I am most definitely fired. How am I going to feed my family without this job” you think to yourself. You run out the door, hair wet, with some version of coffee in your hand. You notice you still have time to make it to work before your first meeting. You exhale deeply and your heart rate decreases just as your favorite song comes on. You make it on time.

It’s a Sunday, your normal day for restful activities. But your normal walk around the neighborhood just seems too difficult. Your spouse is upset with you, but you just can’t contact the part of you that cares. You watch the eighth episode of Ozark in a row. The couch is the only place you care to be. You know you have to take the dog out, but you just can’t seem to make yourself do it. Fido paws you and you finally get up, and go outside. The sun is shining. The warmth feels good on your face. The grass is cool beneath your toes. You go back inside and all of a sudden, your energy returns, and you feel like you can face the day.

This is the way of the nervous system. We get distressed but we calm down. We feel numb and disconnected but we come back. If you are operating from a fairly regulated place, you may notice that you can surf these waves with ease and you spend most of your time in the middle. This is called the “window of tolerance.” A term coined by famed somatics and trauma scientist, Peter Levine. Peter’s work indicates that we have waves we surf on a daily basis. However, prolonged trauma or chronic stress can get us stuck in one extreme or the other.

When I was planning a wedding while I was experiencing big relational ruptures, when I started my business while I was grieving, my window of tolerance was smaller than normal. Meaning that these stressful events caused my nervous system to spend less time in the regulated portion of the window. When we go through difficult times or when our past trauma gets triggered in a consistent way, we may notice we are easier to irritate. We may experience jaw or digestive pain, frequent headaches, or a host of other maladies signifying that our nervous system is in a state of dysregulation and hyperdrive. Or we may be on the opposite side of the spectrum, with low energy, cold extremities, no appetite, and feeling almost frozen and numb to the world.

In the “stuck off” position, the tv or an escapist novel is my best friend. I can barely show up for work tasks. Moving my body is a huge ask. Cooking and preparing food that is nourishing is a pipe dream and the drivers of Uber Eats get to know me really well. I cancel plans, draw the curtains, and wake up days later wondering why there is a Taco Bell wrapper stuck to my forearm.

In the “stuck on” position, I can look quite perfectionistic. No amount of work is enough. When I am not producing something, I criticize myself harshly. My teeth are sore from all the jaw clenching I am doing, and I feel like running even though I never do. I pace around my house fretting about what I said to whom and when and making failed attempts to correct things that are often not my responsibility to correct. Sleep is a mystery and I long for calm and regulation.

It’s normal and beneficial for our nervous system to oscillate between anxiety (the upper/stuck ‘on’ portion of the window) and numbed out (the lower/stuck ‘off’ portion of the window). What becomes problematic is when we get stuck in one portion or the other. When we are stuck on, we may find sleep is less than a present part of our routine. We may not be able to sit with our thoughts as they race by. Our hearts may be working overtime and keeping us from feeling the pain we are avoiding. We may forget to eat and struggle to do the things that keep us well-resourced.

When we are spending an inordinate amount of time in the lower portion of the window, we may experience being checked out. We may struggle with motivation. We may be melancholically attached to things in the past. We may long for escapism and spend more time with the tv or the internet than we do with the birds and the trees. People around us may complain of our disconnection and miss us.

If one of these sounds like your current state, know that there are practices that can help increase your window so you’re spending more time in regulation and less time being stuck on or off. See an example for each below:

A Practice for When You Are Stuck On

Begin by placing your legs in an elevated position up against a wall or on a chair while you are lying on the floor. This allows for your heart to catch a break from pumping so fast. This position alone has been known to stop panic attacks in their tracks and can usually assist with anxiety symptoms in 5-10 minutes.

After you find a comfortable position with your legs elevated, tap into your breathing and its natural rhythm.

Try not to judge or change your breath but simply notice its natural in and out. When you feel ready, plug your left nostril, and breathe in with your right. After your in-breath, plug the left nostril for a pause, and then plug your right nostril and breath out. Breathe in again with your left nostril (right nostril plugged) and pause at the top of the breath to switch nostrils.

Repeat 10-20 times or until you feel some relief. This is known as alternate nostril or sun and moon breathing and it is famed for assisting in the balancing of energy, calming anxiety, and regulating the activated nervous system.

A Practice for When You Are Stuck Off

Wherever you are, step outside. Get yourself in a comfortable position and notice your breathing. In this order, complete these tasks.

Name to yourself 5 things you see around you. Follow this with a big breath in and out. Take out the visual of your experience if that feels comfortable for you.

Name to yourself 4 things you hear around you. Follow this with a big breath in and out.

Name to yourself 3 things you smell or taste. Follow this with a big breath.

Name 2 things you feel outside of your body (textures, air temperature, etc.) Follow this with a big breath in and out.

Name one thing you feel inside your body, a sensation, emotion, etc. Follow this with a final big breath in and out.

Your nervous system’s design is nothing short of eloquent. We need to be able to move into hyperdrive when we are running from a tiger. We need to be able to dissociate and shut off when painful things happen. Prolonged effects of trauma just happen to make these coping skills pop in when they aren't totally necessary. Being late to work shouldn’t activate us so much that we don’t eat lunch or sleep. A disagreement with our spouse over the dishes doesn't have to send us into full on dissociation from ourselves.

Increasing our window of tolerance can help us respond to our life in a more regulated way. It’s also useful to pay attention to what it feels like for you personally when you are operating outside your window. If we can catch ourselves, we can learn to regulate when necessary. From this place of awareness and regulation we can actively improve our experience of the world around us.

Take care of your mental well-being and find support through life’s peaks and valleys with Your Mental Well-being Toolkit, a four-part series with Gabriella Wright, available now in the Chopra App.