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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

The Window of Tolerance

What makes a feeling “too much”? Why do some feelings cause us to react in ways that feel uncharacteristic of ourselves? How do we cope with feelings and why are some easier to cope with than others?

Let me introduce you to the Window of Tolerance.

Within each one of us, there is a “window”, a sort of pre-coded range for which feelings and sensory experiences are expected and tolerable. The parameters of our windows are set by our genetics, our inborn temperament and our early childhood experiences. This “coding” helps to explain why different people have different parameters--that is, why we experience and cope with feelings and sensory information somewhat differently.

It's also true that our windows have the capacity to change throughout our lives, into adulthood. If we have healthy experiences and supportive relationships, it's possible that our windows will shift open a little wider. Similarly, our windows are vulnerable to become much more narrow by traumatic events. In fact, this is the very nature of trauma, that it re-organizes our window (ie. central nervous system).

Inside the Window

When we experience sensations that are inside our window, we are able to maintain our balance, or quickly able to return to balance. We feel our emotions, and we cope with them. They feel like a part of ourselves. We are flexible, we are relational, and we are able to think clearly and act with intention.

Beyond the Window

On the other hand, when we experience sensations that are outside of our window, they feel overwhelming. They feel separate from ourselves, a threat to our selves. This is what is happening when we feel unable to cope with our feelings and experience. When we are outside of our window, we are often rigid, have trouble relating to others, and aren’t as able to think, plan or act as we normally would.

Getting Back Within Your Window

You're probably familiar with some ways to return to your window, they're forms of what is popularly called "self care". Often strategies like deep breathing, yoga, exercise, counting or self talk can really help.

But the most effective way to return to balance, to get back inside your window is through "co-regulation". This is a fancy way to say support from a friend, family member or therapist. Someone who can listen, understand, validate, and help you and your central nervous system to get back in range, back to yourself. This is true both for children and adults.

The tricky part is, that when we're outside of our window, feeling out of control or overwhelmed, it can be hard to let someone in. We're vulnerable in those moments, and it can feel like a risk to let someone see our struggle. But when you have safe and supportive relationships around you, you will find that there is no real risk. That reaching out helps. The more we reach out, the more we're able to get back into our window, and the more you will find the "self care" strategies listed above to be helpful.

Co-regulation can become even more challenging when someone has experienced trauma at the hands of another person. If you've been hurt by someone, it's an even bigger risk to reach out for help. In fact, one of the most challenging after effects of trauma is that other people don’t feel safe and therefore the ability to seek and use co-regulation can be compromised, taking away your most important coping strategy. This is the nature of trauma. It attempts to take away exactly what is needed to heal: relationships. This can leave your window very narrow.

How Therapy Helps

First of all, therapy does help! And it can help in a variety of ways. You might lean specific coping skills that will most appeal and work for you, so that you may more easily shift back to balance. You may also learn to prioritize taking good care of your self, of your window, so that it becomes-and stays-nice and wide. But the most important thing therapy can offer is a safe, supportive relationship-a dependable space for co-regulation. It’s the invisible part of therapy and also the most effective and meaningful. And though this is the most important part, it can also feel the most risky. Yet when you take healthy risks (like talking to a trustworthy therapist), when you talk about uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and sensations with a therapist who can reliably support healthy co-regulation, your window WILL become wider. And when you re-organize your window in this way, you become more flexible, more relational, more ”you”. And that is what therapy is all about!

Create Space in your window today! Call Dayna Sharp, LCSW at 856-281-1664!


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