I don’t know how many people have experienced the last 2 years as a trauma with the pandemic and the political atmosphere. But it does feel that many people have a smaller window of tolerance than they had before. It feels like more and more people these days are dysregulated. As a result of everything that has happened in the world, it does seem like there has been a shrinking of our window of tolerance. I know I am more reactive than at any other time in my life, though now I am trying to bring more awareness so I can keep myself regulated when I start moving towards dysregulation.
Regulation Versus Dysregulation
Dysregulation or emotional dysregulation is a response when we cannot tolerate what is going on. It is when we experience a perceived negative response from someone else and our inability to manage our own responses. This is our stress responses. For example, I saw a video probably last year or earlier this year that someone took at Costco of an older woman (probably 70s’s) who was told that she needed to wear a mask and her reaction was to get very upset and then she sat down on floor and had what I would describe as a tantrum.
When we are younger human-beings we will experience dysregulation as we learn to manage all the feelings we have. So, it is not uncommon to see a 3 year old do this in a store. But I don’t think until last year, I started seeing adults come completely dysregulated right in front of our eyes.
Struggling with Regulation
Most people learn to maintain regulation as they develop into adults though different things such as trauma can make maintaining regulation more difficult. Most people probably haven’t laid down in the middle of a store, but I do think more people seem to be struggling with staying regulated and my guess is our window of tolerance has gotten smaller so we our struggling with staying regulated in difficult and challenging times. Some people were already struggling with dysregulation prior to all the chaos in the world so I’m sure the recent issues have made it a great deal more difficult for them. But for others this might be a new problem.
Our ability to self-regulate makes all the difference in how we can manage our emotions and behaviors no matter what the situation and what is happening around us. It is the ability to manage what is going on whether it is setbacks, disappointments, not getting our way or other people triggering us. I was listening to a podcast, and Brené Brown quoted Kabat-Zin (I hopefully got it correct but here it is) “overwhelm means life is unfolding at a rate that neither my psyche nor nervous system can handle”. Overwhelmed is beyond just feeling stressed. This is when we are being pushed outside of window of tolerance.
Window of Tolerance
This is the idea that we can function and interact in the world in a place that does not activate the flight/fight/shutdown system (the autonomic nervous system). Discomfort can live here at the edges of our tolerances when we do challenging things though some people will be thrown-out of their window of tolerance since discomfort feels like danger to them.
Dan Siegel coined this term, the window of tolerance, as the zone of arousal that allows someone to receive, process and integrate information and respond to everyday life without too much difficulty. Our ability to track our system and adjust to difficult situations will be a combination of how big our window of tolerance is and our ability to self-regulate during times we are on the edges of our window or when we are thrown outside our window.
Building our Window
Why is this important? Outside the obvious, no one wants to end up on the Internet having a tantrum in Costco, but it also gives us more ability to expand and challenge our world. It helps us be able to learn new things and continue to grow.
The smaller our window can make us less tolerant of others and our brain is not going to stay open to new ideas or different beliefs because once we are outside of our window, our brain is going to start perceiving threat and danger. So, anything unfamiliar or causing discomfort may have a greater level of threat for our brains. There are different steps we can take to either build it back up or expand it.
We need to start tracking our nervous system. Take notice of what sensations are going on in our bodies. Challenge yourself to stay aware and sit with any discomfort without a reaction. Name what you are noticing. For example, “I am feeling really angry.” “It feels like my face is red and my blood is boiling.” “I feel nervous”. “It feels like my stomach has butterflies”. This can be difficult to stay with our discomfort and place a space between us and what is going on, but it will help us start building up our tolerance.
Push the Pause
There are ways to put a space between our reactions and us. The STOP practice can be very helpful here. STOP stands for stop, take a deep breath, observe, and proceed. It is a pause button before you do or say something that you may regret later or move you to a place where you are no longer being controlled by a place of logic and reason.
Grounding is another way to move yourself back into the moment or present. Grounding is a process where we reconnect to our senses. It is connecting us to the earth, gravity, our body, where we are, and our 5 senses (taste, touch, sound, sight, smell).
The STOP practice and grounding will be very helpful in those moments when you are moving outside of your window. There are other things we can do to help build up the window.
If we are lucky, we learned adaptive and healthy tools as children. But if not, we can still learn how to self-sooth. We can utilize breathing techniques to help stabilize ourselves. Practices imagery such as a calm place that can help keep us within our window. Gesturing can be a calming activity, such as placing your hands on your heart. Anything that feels comforting will work here.
Presence and Self-Compassion
Being more mindful will help a lot with just keeping us more in the moment. Being able to sit with our feelings but not be overrun by what we are feeling. It will help with that awareness piece. It is approaching what is going on with our thoughts, body sensations and feelings with curiosity. Instead of being overtaken by our inner monster, and become that out-of-control dysregulated adult. Again, it is stepping back and observing what is going on in your body. How we are reacting to a situation.
Self-compassion is approaching how we are feeling with a balance, so we don’t need to be taken over by those feelings or suppress those emotions. It is accepting what is there with love, compassion and understanding. Sometimes we go through hard shit, but we are not alone. Life is hard for everyone at some time, and it is what we have in common with other humans. It is recognizing we have a shared humanity with everyone else. Give yourself a break; we always have opportunities to learn and get better at anything.
We are meant to stay connected to other people. Isolation and loneliness can be very unhealthy. Staying connected will build our resiliency and our window. Finding a community and support can be challenging but we can look for support groups or community groups.
Look for something you have in common with other people. You can find a support group for all kinds of things. There are also different community groups or meet up groups in your area. Look for what issue or interest you have. For example, you can do a meet up group in your city for hiking activities. Or a support group for divorced persons. There are also more structured activities such as taking a class.
We can also push towards our edges and build our tolerance for difficult things. We can do it by focusing on a part of your feelings/emotions/sensations without being overwhelmed by the whole part. It is slowly being able to be with those difficult emotions, fears, or tension. It is spending some time there but moving away before you get overloaded.
Pendulation is slowing building the tolerance by moving back and forth until the discomfort is decreased. The idea is like the back-and-forth motion of pendulum. So, shifting your attention from something that is distressing to something neutral or pleasant. Slowly increasing how much you can tolerate it without becoming overwhelmed. Building your capacity which will build your window of tolerance.
I’m not sure we can utilize all the same tools you would if you are trying to support a dysregulated child. But we could try to maintain our own regulation when others become dysregulated. I think it is important to be compassionate of others and recognize that they may not be in the part of the brain where reason lives or may be moving away from reason. They could be anywhere from the limbic system (alarmed state), mid-brain (fearful state) or brainstem (terror survival state).*
So, depending on just what part of the brain they are operating from they may not be capable of conscious thoughts. We do have a choice to be pulled into dysregulation with them or maintain our self-regulation and maybe helping them co-regulate with us. It is going to be more about your calm presence and the tone you use than the words. Sometimes all we can do is stay calm and sit in the eye of a hurricane until the storm passes and the other person moves back to a place where reason may work.
We all have some responsibility here on the choices we make as adults. The more we can build up our window of tolerance the more we can keep from being triggered by those unexpected challenges that come up. It will allow us to grow and become better at recognizing and dealing with, and not being controlled by, those thoughts and emotions that come up through the day.
We can approach this with a growth mindset and curiosity to grow. It also allows us to appreciate what is around us and feel more grateful. There are a lot of amazing things that are happening around us that we completely missed when we are not in our zone. It can help us move to our potential. And be the amazing people, siblings, spouses, parents, friends, and partners we are meant to be.
Photo by Tuva Mathilde Loland
Original Post December 08, 2021 on Karen Gentilman’s website Illumination Counseling Service.
Karen Gentilman is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) practicing in the State of Idaho, working for 30 years with many different medical conditions both acute and chronic conditions, the last 20 years in neurological rehabilitation including brain injury, strokes and spinal cord injuries. She takes a trauma-informed, integrated and holistic approach with utilizing multiple modalities which is individually based while striving to provide compassionate therapeutic environment. Call (208) 266-4642 or email KarenGentilman@IlluminationCounselingService.com to set up a FREE 15-minute consultation. Visit Karen Gentilman’s profile page.