• Shaun McMahon

How To Cope When You’re Upset: Expanding Your Window of Tolerance

Updated: Aug 2

In a previous blog post I discussed the window of tolerance, and how it relates to the distress we experience in our day to day lives, even in response to seemingly innocuous events. If you can relate to having a small window of tolerance, and commonly find yourself distressed, it might be helpful to know that it is possible to expand your window of tolerance. This means having an increased capacity to deal with the ups and downs of life without getting overwhelmed or shutting down.


Those who have grown up with secure attachment to their parents often have a capacity to self-regulate when things get tough. But for those who had less than ideal upbringings, it can be difficult or even impossible for them to regulate in healthy ways. Here are three simple steps you can take in order to help you to regulate when you’re distressed, thereby expanding your window of tolerance.


Step One: Name It


One of the most important things you can do when you’re dysregulated is to name it. The tricky thing about being in these states is that they’re so consuming and overwhelming, which is by design. When we’re in hyper or hypo arousal, our main priority is survival, meaning to escape the threat we’re facing. It’s not to sit and ponder our experience. But more often than not, we’re not actually facing a threat, but due to the reasons discussed earlier, our body ‘thinks’ we are.


By being able to name that you’re dysregulated, you’re engaging your metacognition, your capacity to reflect upon your thoughts, feelings and experience. You are now aware of the state that you are in, and can take steps to regulate yourself.


Step Two: Get Into Your Body


As we’re describing a bodily response first and foremost, it makes sense to begin addressing our dysregulation through the body. The way you respond to this dysregulation depends upon the state you’re in, which is why the first step is to engage your mental awareness, because without it, you can’t know what’s going on, and therefore how to address it.


If you’re in hyperarousal, the body is fired up, and therefore you need to decrease arousal. This can look like a way to burn the excess energy that is coming with this state, and/or finding ways to calm yourself down. This includes:


  • Doing some breathing exercises

  • Going for a walk

  • Doing yoga or tai chi

  • Physical Exertion (lifting weights, gardening, vacuuming etc).

  • Listening to soft/soothing music

  • Shaking off excess energy


If you’re hypoaroused, you’re in a flattened state, and therefore you need to increase your arousal. This often means meaningful stimulation that will activate your body and/or senses, thereby reconnecting with yourself. This can include:


  • Dancing to upbeat music

  • Smelling strong scents (such as essential oils)

  • Simulating a rocking motion (such as a rocking chair or bouncing on an exercise ball)

  • Using your hands and fingers (cooking, baking, gardening)

  • Exercise


Not all strategies will work for everyone in the same circumstances, and so it’s important to monitor your state during and after, and find what works best for you.


Step Three: Reflect


Once you have been able to regulate and re-enter your window of tolerance, it can be helpful to take some time to reflect upon your experience. The key here is to be able to notice what it was that caused you to become dysregulated in the first place, so that you can be aware of this happening in the future, and catch it before you become dysregulated again. I should stress that this can take quite a bit of practice, and any kind of mindfulness or meditation practice you do can assist you in becoming more attuned to the more nuanced changes in your state.


Until such a time, do your best to understand what it was like to be in a dysregulated state. How did it feel? What did it make you want to do? What did it make you not want to do? Why was it so hard to do something different, and get out of this state?


And then, consider how you managed to regulate. What helped? Why do you believe this helped? And what didn’t help? Why?


Lastly, what could you do differently next time to avoid becoming dysregulated? Would it mean only staying with that bothersome parent for 20 minutes instead of an hour? Or not checking the news when you know it’s going to make you anxious? Putting boundaries and plans in place to avoid becoming dysregulated can help you to manage until you are better equipped to cope with challenging experiences.


How Therapy Can Help You To Expand Your Window of Tolerance


Expanding your window of tolerance can take time, but it is a rewarding process. It enables you to enjoy more of life and not get so affected by the day to day challenges we face. While there might be things that never stop bothering you or causing you to become dysregulated, the amount of time it takes you to recognize your response to these things and regulate yourself can dramatically shorten.


One of the best ways to manage this process is to see a therapist. During sessions, clients are borrowing their therapists regulation system, in the same way that a parent would help regulate a child. Returning to our previous example, what might be distressing and overwhelming for the client likely isn’t having the same affect on your therapist because they’re not experiencing it first hand. Even if what you're sharing is tremendously troubling, a therapist worth their salt will be able to help you to regulate your reactions to these experiences, as well as notice if they’re becoming dysregulated during session and manage their own response, so as to not have it affect you or the session.


Over time, there is a natural transmission of these skills; as you experience the therapist firstly noticing your distress, before acknowledging it and helping you to regulate, you too will develop this capacity. The window of tolerance and regulation skills are often something I focus on with my clients during the first couple of sessions because of how impactful this framework and the associated skills can be. If you’re interested in therapy with me and would like to speak to me about my services and how I could help you, you can always book in a free phone consultation by clicking HERE.



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