How to Deal with Overwhelm In a Pandemic (Hint: Check Your Window of Tolerance)

window of tolerance

Many people are feeling pushed past their limits these days. Does it feel like you have a short fuse, get upset easily, or worry a lot – more than you used to? You may see others getting frustrated, cry, or blow up over small things. Do you want to hide from the world? Is it all too much? Feeling okay through stressful situations is possible when you can widen your window of tolerance of emotions.

Your ability to balance or regulate emotional highs and lows is your window of tolerance. You can widen it – which is especially needed in times like these — to manage better with everyday life.

When it comes to a window of emotional tolerance, bigger is better. Widening our windows isn’t easy. But it is necessary. Sometimes life pushes us to expand our windows—whether we want to or not.

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving up stress for everyone. It can escalate the worry and anxiety we all have to manage. It is also depressing for some, decreasing their energy or motivation.

When you know about your window of tolerance, you can work to stretch it to cope with changing emotions, stop feeling overwhelmed, and handle whatever life throws at you.

What It Feels Like Being Outside the Window of Tolerance

You’ll know what it’s like to be outside the window of emotional tolerance when your emotions become unmanageable. In therapy we say you’re either above your window or below it.

When your emotional energy is above your window of tolerance you may feel:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Upset by small things
  • Angry
  • Like your head is spinning; your mind runs in circles; you have racing thoughts
  • Can’t stop being busy; can’t sleep; can’t slow down
  • Restless, anxious, panic
  • Hard on yourself; self-critical

Therapists call this

  • Hyperarousal
  • Hypervigilance
  • Anxiety

You know your emotional energy is below your window of tolerance when you feel:

  • Numb or dead inside
  • Like not caring
  • Unmotivated
  • Unsure how you feel
  • Like running away or hiding
  • Unable to say no
  • Unable to stand up for yourself or keep your boundaries
  • Down on yourself, ashamed
  • Little self-compassion

Therapists call this

  • Hypoarousal
  • Depression

When you feel like you can handle what’s happening or how you are feeling, you are emotionally safe, you know you’re living within a healthy window of tolerance.

What Is the Window of Tolerance?

The window of tolerance is a concept used by many experts in mental health, including Dan Siegel and Janina Fisher. It helps describe the ability to tolerate emotions. Within your window of tolerance you are able to:

  • Think and feel at the same time
  • Have all parts of your brain working together at the same time
  • Hold more than one feeling at a time (a huge accomplishment in trauma therapy)

Expanding your window of tolerance allows you to sit with – and live with — emotions that were too much before.

As your self-care skills grow, you can hold both your feelings and your thoughts together. You know you’ll make it through and you’ll feel safe inside.

Your emotions are how you feel. There are no wrong emotions – even when they’re outside your window of tolerance.

When your feelings expand beyond your window of tolerance or your window is narrow or small, your thoughts and feelings easily feel overwhelming. They are all you notice or feel. You can’t see around them or past them.

You may experience anxiety, racing thoughts, frustrations and may feel unsafe. This is hyperarousal. It’s actually a coping skill people use to try to feel less badly or less scared. Taking action feels like a way to protect yourself from danger or have some sense of control. Trying to stay super-busy is a way people use hyperarousal, so they don’t have to feel or experience the discomfort of overwhelming feelings. They are too busy! You may think if you stay as busy as possible, and do all you can, you will be able to keep yourself safe or avoid feelings you don’t like or don’t know what to do with.

Some people experience hypoarousal. They feel numb, passive, disconnected and often ashamed. They may shut down, or zone out in front of the TV, to keep away the discomfort of unmanageable feelings. They may have overwhelming sadness, shame, feelings of rejection, or otherwise feel unsafe. If you are not present, you don’t have to feel.

Why Some People Have More Tolerance than Others

Trauma impacts the window of tolerance.

Some people learned early on that even if things got hard, they would be okay. These are often people who grew up with secure attachment. At least one caregiver helped them understand their feelings and needs, no matter what those were. There was a language for feelings. They lived with a person or people around them who made them feel safe. Because they had a secure foundation, they learned how to tolerate many kinds of thoughts and emotions. These experiences can help a person have a fairly large or wide window of tolerance.

Other people struggle with unknown feelings or unpredictability. When no one teaches you how to tolerate feelings, nurture feelings or that emotions are not bad, everything feels overwhelming. Some people grow up feeling alone, with no one to help make sense of their world.

Some people grow up being told their feelings are wrong or don’t make sense. Some children experience painful rejection — physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, or all of these — when showing caregivers their emotional needs. This teaches them it’s wrong or even can cause pain to have needs and express them.  Some children come to believe they bring the pain of abuse and neglect upon themselves because they felt sad and cried, asked for attention or felt lonely.

Such childhood experiences can make tolerating or even understanding feelings difficult. This is especially true for complex developmental trauma survivors. These examples are how many people experience trauma or insecure, avoidant or disorganized attachment. These experiences likely lead to a narrower window of tolerance. If you feel unable to deal with emotions, you may try not to feel them.

Some use hyperarousal, and some use hypoarousal to manage their nervous system. Some even use both, toggling between the two. They may as they age use something external to try to feel less badly inside, like drugs, alcohol, food, sex, self-harm, exercise or dissociation. If someone experienced childhood trauma, or trauma over time, their window of tolerance is likely to be narrower than someone who had help learning how to manage their inner world.

Window of tolerance poster by Janina Fisher used with permission

The window of tolerance (image courtesy of Janina Fisher, Ph.D.).

A pandemic is a traumatic experience. It can narrow all of our windows.

We all have to tolerate things we don’t like during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are facing conditions that are uncomfortable and out of our control. We have to tolerate the anxiety around not knowing what’s going on or what will happen next, and concerns about our daily health and safety. Physical separation may even trigger issues of loneliness, rejection or abandonment from the past, whether we realize it or not.

No matter how big our windows of tolerance were before COVID, this pandemic is challenging them. This experience has narrowed some of our windows. (Every child now has at least one more adverse childhood experience – one more ACE score!)

This health crisis might trigger feelings in flashbacks from past traumas. Some of us think—I can’t handle this anymore! We may at times want to resort to coping mechanisms that don’t serve us well, just so we don’t have to feel the pain, discomfort or confusion.

However, this difficult situation is also an opportunity to choose to expand our windows of tolerance.

How Do We Expand our Windows of Tolerance?

Noticing what you feel, with kindness and compassion, is a good first step. It sounds simple, but it isn’t easy. Widening the window of tolerance starts with slowing down enough to find words for what you feel.

Dr. Dan Siegel calls this process, “Name it to tame it.

Once you notice you are having a strong emotional reaction, the next step is to describe, or name it – whether to yourself or out loud. For example, say mentally “I am feeling angry” or “I have a tight ball of nerves in my gut.” Choosing words to describe subtle emotions jump-starts your executive brain and calms down your emotional limbic brain.

Putting sensations into words like this is why we use a bottom-up approach to therapy

These steps can help you use “name it to tame it” to expand your window of tolerance:

  1. First notice and name your sensations and feelings. When you can put words to how you are feeling, it helps you feel calmer.
  2. Start by just sitting with your feelings for a few seconds at a time. Small increments are great. Don’t feel like you have to endure them for too long. Sit and notice what’s happening. Notice how your inner world feels. Breathe, and even if you’re not calm yet, notice that the feelings aren’t actually killing you. You can sit with them. You can tolerate them.
  3. See if you can find something to be grateful for in the situation. Maybe you can acknowledge and thank the protective part of you – the part you had to develop in childhood to keep you safe. You may recognize hyperarousal as what you did to be safe from an abusive parent. Back then, being that alert may have kept you alive. Notice — do you need that feeling now?
  4. See if you can acknowledge your strengths and what you’ve survived.
  5. Give yourself some grace. This situation is hard! Building or deepening a practice of self-compassion and self-care will help you expand your window immensely.
  6. Choose to reach out to the helpers in your life. Find someone safe to talk with about your feelings. Being connected increases your window of tolerance. You may feel like you don’t want to be a burden, but healing thrives in relationships! Part of expanding your window is learning to reach out and ask for help. Think of reaching out when you might otherwise choose to turn inward or turn towards an unhealthy coping mechanism.
  7. Know you are not alone. Healthy relationships help us heal.

Remember, we can feel both discomfort and acceptance at the same time!

A large window of tolerance won’t make difficulties disappear. You may have some anxiety or sadness—even when you are in the window. That is a normal part of life. With a larger window, you know you will get through it. You are more than your hardships.

Even if you are struggling to tolerate your feelings or find ways to regulate your emotions, you can still be kind and gentle to yourself. You can still take good care of yourself. You can be grateful for the wisdom in your feelings. You can hold the anxiety and hold the compassion at the same time. You can be anxious and reach out. You can feel like running away and sit with your feelings.

When you are able to feel the discomfort and choose compassion, you are expanding your window of tolerance.

How to Help Someone Else Expand Their Window

When someone expresses their anxiety, fear, or discomfort to you, don’t try to fix them. Acknowledge, hold and witness their feelings so they don’t have to experience them alone. Instead of jumping to fix the situation, words like these can help:

  • That sounds really hard. I’m here for you.
  • You are not alone!
  • Is there anything I can do to make this better for you?
  • You are doing what you can to cope with something so unpredictable and scary!

Notice when you feel your window being stretched. Notice all that you can hold within you – your compassion and your ways of nurturing yourself. You are, therefore, as safe as you can be.

Expanding our windows of tolerance isn’t easy. But it’s doable. And it’s worth it!

Do You Need Support in Expanding Your Window of Tolerance?

A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact me. At this time, we are providing only virtual teletherapy, implemented for the COVID-19 health crisis.


Image credits: Window of Tolerance illustration, by Janina Fisher, Ph.D. is used with permission.

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