The last couple of years have been plagued with never-ending trauma and bad news. While this isn’t the first time in history people have faced so much
collective trauma, it won’t be the last.
But because of the seemingly endless trauma, people are finding they are struggling a bit more to function on a daily basis, and this affects each person’s window of tolerance.
How Trauma Affects It
Many people are less productive, having difficulty concentrating, and seeking counseling or medication for the first time in their lives. They are dealing with more symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental illnesses. COVID-19 alone could be named the culprit, but many other things have happened, too. Polarizing presidential elections, racial tension, natural disasters, financial strain, and now the war in Ukraine.
People are so tired. They are running on fumes, in survival mode just trying to make it through each day. They are either retreating further into themselves or are fighting to work hard despite how they feel. Does that resonate with you?
Each person’s window of tolerance seems to be affected from all the collective trauma which only builds on the personal trauma already there.
“Developed by Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, the Window of Tolerance describes the best state of ‘arousal’ or stimulation in which we are able to function and thrive in everyday life. When we exist within this window, we are able to learn effectively, play, and relate well to ourselves and others. However, if we move outside of our window we can become hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused.”
This window of tolerance can become larger or smaller, depending on circumstances and one’s health.
How Seasons Affect It
There are some seasons where one is more easily hyper- or hypo-aroused than other seasons. For example, when a new mother is juggling the strain of having a new baby in the home, her window of tolerance may be smaller than usual.
The new mother’s hormones are still out of balance. Her sleep has been disrupted. Her life now centers around keeping her baby alive and well. She may be more easily irritated or find herself struggling more with depression than usual because her life has been turned upside down.
Therefore, her window of tolerance is smaller in this season. Her window may get bigger after her baby is less dependent or sleeps through the night or when her hormones level out.
How Hyper- or Hypo-Arousal Affects It
When someone is hyper-aroused, they usually go into the “fight or flight” trauma response. It can manifest as more intense anger, irritability, higher anxiety, high-risk or self-harming behavior, or feeling like things are chaotic, overwhelming, and constantly stressful.
They will “fight” in a tendency to overwork and not rest. They won’t stop to listen to their bodies or their minds for a cue of what they might need. They just keep going, no matter the cost. Or they take “flight.” They avoid or procrastinate and don’t get anything done.
When someone is hypo-aroused, they go into their “freeze” trauma response, shutting down, numbing their uncomfortable emotions, and maybe even dissociating. It can manifest as symptoms of depression or other mood disorders.
They become more withdrawn from their loved ones and responsibilities, too. They look and feel exhausted most of the time and struggle to connect because they have nothing left to give others.
Does any of this feel familiar? Many people have a smaller window of tolerance right now. More people are depressed, anxious, struggling to manage their anger, misusing substances, and having difficulty functioning.
You can’t control anyone else’s trauma responses. What you can do is honor your own window of tolerance.
How to Honor Your Window of Tolerance
Here are four ways to honor your own window of tolerance to find greater peace.
1. Always start with awareness.
Pay attention to how you feel and what triggered that emotion. What happens in your body when you feel it? What thoughts go through your mind? If you are naming many of the emotions and experiences listed above, you may not be operating in your window of tolerance.
To notice, you must be willing to slow down and reflect. You’ll never be able to be aware if you keep yourself busy all the time. So slow down and notice.
Mindful awareness is a great way to begin this practice. Is your heart rate too high? Is your breathing irregular? Are your muscles constantly tense? Do you always feel tired, like you could sleep for hours? Are you more easily irritated than normal and having trouble finding hope? When is the last time you laughed? These are all indicators you may be trying to operate outside of your window of tolerance.
2. Know your triggers.
This is a part of awareness, too, and it just means you know the kind of things that lead to more anxiety, more stress, more overwhelm, more anger, or more depression. You can learn this by paying attention over time. When you know your triggers, you can more effectively manage the emotions that follow.
Let’s say cooking stresses you out, but you keep trying to cook after work each night. You find that you are in a bad mood all evening, short-tempered with those around you, and don’t feel rested the next morning after a restless night of sleep.
What if you chose not to cook every night, order take-out sometimes, or put food in the crockpot so it’s ready when you get home? You know your trigger, and you work around it if possible. Maybe in another season cooking won’t feel so daunting, but for now, it’s okay to make the adjustments you need.
3. Do what you need to do.
After becoming aware of your emotions and thoughts and triggers, then it’s up to you to do what you need to do:
- Does your body need rest or movement?
- Do you need to say no to something because there’s already too much on your calendar?
- Do you need to set an alarm to keep from oversleeping?
- Do you need regular therapy appointments or medication?
- Do you need to cut back in an area?
Your response to these questions will change throughout each day, each week, each month, and each season. Because of that, you’ll have to keep asking yourself, “What do I need right now?” Note the problem, name the need, then use your resources to meet that need if you can. Pull out those healthy coping skills and use them.
After realizing your need, you may also have to communicate it to others if appropriate. For example, if your boss is giving you too many tasks that you’re unable to complete, you may need to request more time or for those tasks to be delegated elsewhere. If a messy home is overwhelming you to the point of high anxiety, you need to talk with your roommate, partner, or family members about helping you keep the space clean.
4. Take care of yourself.
Be responsible for your health. Self-care isn’t just about bubble baths and face masks and golf games. It’s about ordinary activities like exercise, getting out in the sun, going to your therapy appointments, spending time in regular prayer, hanging out with your people, being wise with your money, and honoring your limits.
Self-care is about good boundaries and healthy relationships. If you take care of yourself on a regular basis, this will help widen your window of tolerance over time. It will also help you manage the uncomfortable emotions that arise when you feel hyper- or hypo-aroused. What do you need to do to take better care of yourself?
Managing Your Window of Tolerance
Since it’s fairly normal for people to have a more narrow window of tolerance right now, it’s even more important to build awareness, know your triggers, do what you need, and take care of yourself. You won’t be able to function at a healthy level if you don’t.
Don’t push yourself to operate outside of your window too much, because you’ll crash and burn. Know what you’re able to do and not do right now. Know what you can handle and what you can’t, and honor that.
If you need help managing your window of tolerance, you can receive guidance from a qualified Christian counselor. It can help to get a third-party perspective on your problems, and a Christian counselor will offer compassionate care based on biblical principles.
“Window View”, Courtesy of Rob Wingate, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fed up,” courtesy of Francisco Moreno, unsplash.com, CC0 License “Down”, Courtesy of Arif Riyanto, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Watching the Sunset”, Courtesy of Sage Friedman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License