What is the Window of Tolerance?
The window of tolerance is a model based in neuroscience, established by Dr. Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, to describe the optimal zone of arousal. In other words, it describes the capacity to successfully handle the stressors of daily life and manage your emotions and responses to those stressors without excessive emotional distress or resorting to maladaptive/unhelpful behaviors. (you may want to explain the word maladaptive or use ‘unhelpful’)
Throughout the day, you encounter stressors that push you to the edge of (or out of) your window of tolerance and calming moments that pull you back to an ideal state of arousal. Let’s look at a common example:
Imagine that you have missed your alarm and now you are running late to class or work. Your sympathetic system is likely accelerating as you are rushing around. The more anxious and frustrated you feel about your tardiness, the more you are moving towards the edge of or out of your window of tolerance. Once you arrive at your destination and you have settled into your desk, your parasympathetic system activates — putting the brakes on — and you will likely begin to re-regulate, moving back to a calm state.
Our brains are designed to handle the ups and downs of emotions and experiences by remaining within our window of tolerance. We may have unconscious coping mechanisms that help us handle daily stresses.
What happens when you go outside the window?
When a stressor or trigger overwhelms our coping mechanisms, we enter “fight-or-flight” mode. Outside the window of tolerance, the prefrontal cortex of your brain — the part that deals with impulse control, decision-making and regulating emotions — shuts down.
If your arousal level is too high, you’ve gone above the window of tolerance and are experiencing hyperarousal. This is usually the immediate response to a trigger. Hyperarousal is due to the “fight-or-flight” adrenaline response. In a state of hyperarousal, you may also experience increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, racing thoughts and hypervigilance. You likely feel an intense wave of anxiety, panic or anger; these emotions often become overwhelming and out of control.
If your arousal level is too low, you’ve gone below the window of tolerance and are experiencing hypoarousal. This usually follows the adrenaline rush of hyperarousal and comes from a freeze/shut-down response. Hypoarousal can look similar to the symptoms of depression. You may feel zoned out, spacey, numb, exhausted and disconnected from emotions.
How does this apply to misophonia?
The window of tolerance is most commonly referenced in regard to trauma because when someone has experienced a traumatic event (big T or little t), their window of tolerance shrinks. Triggers may cause an increased emotional response, throwing the person out of their window of tolerance before they are even aware that it’s happening. And, because their window of tolerance is smaller, they are likely to fluctuate more often between hyper- and hypo-arousal.
When someone is outside of their window of tolerance for an extended period of time, they may develop clinical levels of anxiety or depression.
Similarly, someone with misophonia is likely to have a smaller window of tolerance, especially in relation to their specific sound/visual triggers.
It is important to note that your window of tolerance will fluctuate day to day. Lack of sleep, stress at work, being hungry or any number of other things can narrow your window. This also means that a stressor or trigger that may not have pushed you out of your window of tolerance yesterday could push you out of the window today.
If we apply this window of tolerance framework to misophonia we can better understand how to cope with triggers by expanding our window.
How do you stay in the window of tolerance?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible — if not likely — that you already have many unconscious coping mechanisms that get you through daily stressors. The keys to staying inside your window of tolerance are self-awareness, self-care and the ability to self soothe. We will dig deeper into methods to expand your window of tolerance later in the article.
To stay within your window of tolerance try some of the following and find what works best for you.
Breathing. There are many types of breath-work that can help calm your nervous system — scientifically proven! For now we will just cover one. Deep breathing from your belly can help ground you and bring you back to yourself if you feel you’re being triggered. Try breathing in through the nose for a count of 4, then breathing out through the mouth for a count of 6. Do this for a few minutes. The longer out-breath will help to calm you.
Movement. Moving around can help shift your energy (especially an adrenaline response) and regulate your arousal levels. If you’re more prone to hyper-arousal then some vigorous physical activity may help you to purge some of the anger or overwhelm you’re experiencing. If you are experiencing hypo-arousal, some gently stimulating exercises – such as rocking yourself or tapping – may help you bring you back to yourself.
Soothe your senses. Think about things to look at, touch, smell, hear and taste. What soothes you in the moment will be unique to you. Listen to calming music, light a scented candle, look through photos of something that makes you happy, make your favourite food, or soothe yourself with a blanket. Find what works for you.
Challenge your thoughts. If you’re able to catch a negative thought, try to challenge it with a more positive one. Imagine what a good friend would say to you. Try to hear that kinder voice in your head to balance out any negative critical thoughts. An example of this would be:
*My mom is making that sound on purpose. I hate her!*
Catch that thought and try to replace it with kindness and perspective.
*My mom is not trying to make that sound. That sound is driving me crazy, but it is not harming me. I can breathe through this. I love my mom.*
Write things down. Grab a pen and paper when you’re feeling stressed or triggered. Writing when you are stressed can help you process your thoughts and feelings. Writing when you are triggered can help you purge the anger and reactivity you may be experiencing. The act of writing things down can feel cathartic. Writing can also help you gain perspective on what you’re feeling and draw you back into a more rational frame of mind within your window of tolerance.
Self-care. When you notice your emotions getting out of control, think of that as a “check engine light” letting you know that you need some self-care. This could include things like going for a walk, taking a hot shower, watching some tv, giving yourself a few minutes to breathe, or calling a friend. Look for self-soothing actions that help you not to be overcome by the emotion and ground you in the present.
Mindfulness. Notice how you’re feeling in response to certain stimuli. Check in with yourself and your surroundings. What’s stressing you out most days? What memories are popping up? Tuning into yourself – with curiosity rather than criticism – can gradually help you become aware of your triggers. Knowing your triggers is the first step to managing them, rather than acting from them.
Daily Quiet Time. This one is particularly important for misophones. Someone with misophonia is experiencing constant fluctuations in their nervous system, adrenaline rushes and changes in cortisol levels. It’s important to let your body have a break from all these ups and downs. Take some time every day to be away from your trigger sounds. That might mean listening to music, complete silence or white noise. Whatever it looks like for you, just enjoy it.
How do you expand your window of tolerance?
Expanding your window of tolerance will take time, work, practice and trial-and-error. You will have to experiment with different methods to find what works best for you.
Regular self-care. Taking time to take care of yourself, whether it’s reading a book, kayaking or baking, is important for reducing your overall stress level. Self-care looks different for everyone, but the key is that it does not have to be some big, time-consuming experience (although it can be!). If you are someone who is busy, always planning, checking social media, running the kids around and cannot imagine taking time for self-care every single day then you are picturing self-care in only one way. Self-care can also look like setting a timer for 5 minutes and sitting on your porch until the timer dings.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and other types of traditional therapy. Creating space to process and deal with the stresses in your life with a professional counselor or psychologist can help create a buffer for your emotional reactions. Your relationship and connection with your therapist is the most valuable part of any therapy relationship, more so than what technique that therapist uses. Find someone with whom you feel comfortable and safe and who can help you stay within the window of tolerance in your sessions, as healing cannot occur when you’re outside of that window. It is always okay to find a new therapist if you do not connect with or feel comfortable with the one you are with.
EMDR. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) can help you process and reorganize traumatic or triggering memories in your brain so that they aren’t creating such strong emotional reactions. This technique replaces the negative narratives and emotions from those memories with a more grounded and centered perspective coupled with positive, affirming words. This method may not work for everyone.
Progressive muscular relaxation (PMR). PMR is based on the practice of tensing and releasing different parts of the body, usually in a systematic way. Tense certain muscles on the in-breath and release them on the out-breath. Research shows that the muscles are less tense following PMR and the proprioceptive sites in the body give feedback to the brain that the body is calmer. You should be cautious if you have high blood pressure or have an injury.