We’ve all heard of the “comfort zone”. This is the space in which we operate most, erm, comfortably. Here we feel no distress or anxiety and we function well. The notion of the “window of tolerance” extends on this concept and applies itself especially to optimal mental health functioning. Always a fan of a new concept, and especially one with such metaphorical promise, I thought I’d explore it further.
Dan Siegel is the author of the term “window of tolerance” and he uses it to refer to that emotional, intellectual and environmental space in which we feel comfortable, where we function normally and happily.
At the edges of this window of tolerance lie hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Hyperarousal is that state in which, when feeling overwhelmed, we feel anxious and may engage in compulsive behaviours. Hypoarousal is also a response to a sense of overwhelm from finding ourselves outside of our window of tolerance, but in this instance our behaviours indicate intense fatigue or even memory loss. We can all experience these two responses, but we are likely to favour one over the other in a state of overwhelm.
If you, like me, have spent a lifetime adapting to new cultures, languages, environments and people, the notion of a comfort zone feels alien – what does comfortable even mean when life is largely defined by whatever new challenge is emerging on the horizon? However, the notion of a window of tolerance feels instantly more applicable.
As a life-long adapter (and if you are a Third Culture Kid too, you’ll know what I mean), I know that increased tolerance comes before comfort – the new strange challenge must become adapted to before I can become comfortable with it.
I remember my hopes when introducing new foods to my weaning child. Simply offering something new to eat was enough to send her into a panic of horror and disgust (I have dramatic child!) So we worked on her window of tolerance by first practicing allowing the new food to stay on her plate. I didn’t expect her to taste it in these first few offerings – simply staying within range was challenge enough. Later on, tasting was also phased – touching to the lips first, then accepting onto her tongue. Comfort with the new food sometimes came weeks after toleration.
Take a moment to grab some paper and a pen. What five things are you dealing with in your life today? Where is your window of tolerance? Draw your window and write inside the things you feel you can comfortable deal with. Now look at the things that feel as though they are tipping you over the edge (hyperarousal) or making you want to hide (hypoarousal) [Use Kerr’s PDF for reference – this is an excellent PDF freely available for download from her website].
For me, recognising my symptoms of hyper- or hypoarousal are going to be key to helping me realise when I’m outside of my window of tolerance. When transition and the varying emotional, intellectual and environmental demands that come with it are second nature to Third Culture Kids especially, anything that helps me recognise my own needs for ‘normal’ functioning is a gift!
Now, how are you going to use this information to help you to widen your window of tolerance? First, identify one of the areas you noted that lead you outside your window of tolerance. Take ten minutes to brainstorm what you need to help feel more comfortable in this area. This process should unlock and uncover some avenues of self-development that will lead you inevitability towards growth. We’ll look at this in more detail in the next post as I explore how growth is an investment.
Let me know how you get on with this exercise, and how you are widening your windows of tolerance!