What is the nervous system?
The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, sensory organs and the network of nerves that connect these organs with the rest of the body. One of the key functions of the nervous system, is that it regulates our fight, flight or freeze responses when the body faces significant stress, threat or danger.
What is the “Window of Tolerance”?
The window of tolerance is a zone where our nervous system is relaxed, calm, alert and engaged. When we are within our window of tolerance, we feel that we can cope with stressors that life throws at us. We may feel some stress, pressure, or feel a bit sluggish, but we are generally able to make rational decisions to cope.
The window of tolerance differs from person to person. Some people may have a wider zone and may be able to tolerate a higher level of emotional intensity or arousal, while others may not. Just think about the different reactions people have towards going on rollercoaster rides at amusement parks. Among our friends and family, we may be able to identify those whom you know would be game for it, and those who would not.
Fig. 1. The Window of Tolerance (adapted with permission from NICABM)
Stress can shrink our window of tolerance
When our stress levels get too high, our body and minds may become overwhelmed and naturally move into a state outside of our window of tolerance - either of hyperarousal (i.e. fight or flight responses) or hypoarousal (i.e. freeze responses).
Hyperarousal is a state when we feel extremely anxious, angry, or out of control. As a result, our bodies might respond by lashing out or getting into fights (i.e. being aggressive, shouting, throwing tantrums), or by running away to avoid the situation that is causing us stress and worry.
Hypoarousal on the other hand, is when we feel extremely ‘zoned out’ and numb, both emotionally and physically. We might feel really sad, or less motivated to participate in our usual activities and withdraw from others. Our body might feel exhausted or like it is frozen.
Both states of hyperarousal and hyperarousal are not how we choose to react, but it feels like our body and reactions have taken over.
What are some factors that can affect our “Window of Tolerance”?
Factors that narrow our window of tolerance:
Factors that widen our window of tolerance:
How can I help to expand a child’s “Window of Tolerance”?
Acknowledgements This article was contributed by Mr Lester Lai, Associate Psychologist and Ms Jemi Chen, Principal Psychologist, Psychosocial Trauma Support Service, KK Women's and Children's Hospital.
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