Larger windows let in more light and expose more scenery. Pets prefer vantage points with plenty of viewing areas to keep watch on their domain. Our dog, Duke, likes the backyard view offered by sliding glass doors. After nearly a decade of getting excited over squirrels, Duke has mellowed. But a groundhog still gets him on his feet and vocal.
Our fight, flight, or freeze response gets activated whenever threatened. This response is as automatic as hitting the break when we see the bright red lights come on in the car ahead of us. And it happens before we consciously recognize that it’s happening.
Squirrels no longer get Duke’s attention because they’re no longer perceived as a threat. So he remains calm and barely notices them feasting on or storing walnuts. But a groundhog snacking on plants in the yard puts Duke into attack mode. He can’t help himself.
On the other hand, fireworks or thunder send Duke into an interior hiding place.
But what if the threat isn’t immediate or mostly imaginary yet the anxiety associated with real danger persists? Perhaps we have an upcoming appointment with a doctor or a meeting that creates fear.
If the feelings associated with this state of alarm persist, some of us may discover we’re agitated, anxious, or angry. We start to feel overwhelmed. Psychologists call these symptoms hyperarousal.
On the other hand, some of us may experience numbness, disassociation, or exhaustion or notice that we lack energy. We may feel depressed. Psychologists call these symptoms hypoarousal.
When feelings associated with hyperarousal or hypoarousal occur, we’re out of balance. In other words, the amount of anxiety falls outside our window of tolerance. Our ability to handle the stresses our body associates with perceived threats.
Dr. Dan Siegel first developed the idea that each of us has a particular window of tolerance. According to a brochure for parents and teachers published by the Island of Jersey Psychology and Wellbeing Service, “the Window of Tolerance describes the best state of ‘arousal’ or stimulation in which we can function and thrive in everyday life. When we exist within this window, we can learn effectively, play, and relate well to ourselves and others.”
However, whenever we’re pushed outside our window of tolerance, our reaction isn’t pretty and quite unhealthy for ourselves and everyone around us.
We all have different ‘windows’ due to factors such as significant childhood experiences, our Neurobiology, social support, environment, and coping skills. Our windows change, but the wider we can make our windows, the less likely we’ll experience anger, frustration, or feel flat, low, and lacking energy.
The go-to approach that is readily available is simple. Avoid anything and anyone that causes us to move outside our window of tolerance. But unfortunately, this approach will likely lead to isolation or at least a more complicated life.
And we can try to help one another. Children, in particular, need help in learning awareness of their own window of tolerance. But hear this clearly: You must be sure that you’re operating within your own window of tolerance before you consider supporting someone else. If you are outside your own window, focus on your lack of balance first rather than project your problems on someone already struggling.
A better approach is to expand your window of tolerance. First, it’s essential to be self-aware of what triggers your hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Knowing your triggers makes it easier to manage your emotions when they appear. This also helps you remain within your window of tolerance.
The amount of stress that we can tolerate is affected by both factors that we can’t control and some that we can. For example, traumatic experiences from childhood affect how well we handle stress, and we can’t undo what already happened. But we can do something about how we respond.
Lord, you have examined me, and you know me. You know everything I do.
Other factors that affect our window of tolerance include the amount of sleep we get. And our responses may be more intense after using mood-altering substances that offer temporary numbness.
Most important, even though our emotions are uniquely our own, we’re never completely alone. The author of Psalm 139 writes, “Lord, you have examined me, and you know me. You know everything I do, and you understand all my thoughts. You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions. Even before I speak, you already know what I will say” (Psalm 139:1-4).
God knows your window of tolerance and has seen every tantrum and burst of anger. And we’re reminded by the Psalm that God sees us when we’re hiding. “You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power” (Psalm 139:5).
Aundi Kolber offers us an exercise to help us expand our window of tolerance. She suggests that we imagine a container strong enough that anything we put into it cannot escape. Now imagine that you’re putting whatever is causing you anxiety into the container. Finally, if the container doesn’t feel strong enough, imagine wrapping it in chains or watching it sink to the bottom of a lake.
As you imagine your anxiety is contained, rest in the knowledge that God is beside you and protects you. Whisper a prayer or softly read Psalm 139. Notice your breathing and take extra long to exhale each breath. Read or pray in rhythm with your breathing.
You can join us each Sunday online by going to the button on the homepage of our website – Click here to watch. This button takes you to our YouTube channel. You can find more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.
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Content for this series is based in part on:
Aundi Kolber. Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode–and into a Life of Connection and Joy. Carol Street, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2020.
Kimberly Drake and Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson. “What Is Your Window of Tolerance?.” © psychcentral.com, November 19, 2021. Retrieved from: link.
Jersey Psychology and Wellbeing Service. “The Window of Tolerance: Supporting the wellbeing of children and young people.” © Government of Jersey, May 2020. Retrieved from: link.