Window Of Tolerance
There are two parts of the nervous system that help with regulating our emotional state. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our state of activation. In this state, we are alert, attentive and awake. The parasympathetic system helps us to relax and calm down.
Normally, we constantly swing back and forward between these two states: being active and being relaxed. In the ideal situation, we don’t go too far in either of these emotional or physiological states. We can tolerate our emotions, be effective and be at our best. In other words, we stay in our window of tolerance – the zone where we feel safe and comfortable, where we able to make rational decisions and be in contact with others.
Fight-Flight or Freeze State
However, some life events push us out of our window of tolerance. We may go to far into a sympathetic state, also known as the fight-flight condition. It is characterized by excessive activation of energy in a form of anxiety, panic, fear, or emotional flooding. Being in the high sympathetic state we can’t relax, sleep, properly digest food or optimally manage our emotions. On a bodily level, we experience tensed muscles, increased heart rate, restlessness, shallow breathing, elevated blood pressure, and cold feet and hands. Our contact with ourselves or others is limited. The most likely emotions here are rage and fear.
If the fight or flight condition can’t be resolved our body and mental state moves into a frozen state. Our muscles are rigid, breathing and heart rate are fast, blood pressure is significantly high. Contact with ourselves and others are not likely to happen. We are probably in terror, and in dissociation, feeling a disconnection with ourselves, our thoughts and memory.
We can also go too far into a parasympathetic state (lethargic condition). Here is where we meet with exhaustion, depression, and numbness. We may want to sleep all the time. It also affects our appetite and sometimes makes us feel emotionally deadened. Our muscles are slack, breathing is shallow, heart rate is slow, blood pressure is low. On the emotional level, we may feel grief, sadness, disgust, and shame. We tend to withdraw ourselves from contact with others.
Unfortunately, we can be stuck in a sympathetic or parasympathetic response for a long time and not able to enjoy our life. The good news is that we can use some tricks for getting back into our window of tolerance. Because our emotions and body sensations are tightly connected, we can learn how to get back to our window by changing our bodily reactions, to regulate our emotions.
Practices to regulate our emotions
To go back from fight-flight or freeze condition (sympathetic state):
- Diaphragmic breathing (exhale is longer than inhale)
- Drinking from a straw
- Intense exercising (if your health is good)
- Jumping on a trampoline (if your health is good)
- Soothing and calm music
To go back from lethargic condition (parasympathetic state):
- Deep breathing (Inhale longer than exhale)
- Anything that stimulates the senses
- Rocking chair
- Chewy crunchy food
- Finger painting
- Weighted blanket
- Water play with the straw
- Dancing and music