Home Mental Health & Well-Being During COVID-19, Pay Attention to Your Window of Tolerance

During COVID-19, Pay Attention to Your Window of Tolerance

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Window of tolerance – I just learned this helpful term coined by Dr Dan Siegel, an American psychiatrist and researcher specialising in attachment, emotions, and mindfulness, among other things.  What a great concept to help us stay emotionally healthy during this time of high anxiety

The window of tolerance illustrates our capacity to cope with stress and handle our emotions.  People have their own windows of tolerance for events and emotions, and their own ways of responding.

Here’s a way to think about the window of tolerance:

Quick guide to the window of tolerance

In the just right window of tolerance

  • Feelings: calm, connected, competent
  • Behaviours: can handle stressful situations if they arise

In the too high window of tolerance

  • Feelings:  anxious, overwhelmed, angry
  • Behaviours: impulsive, self-destructive, or rigid/controlling behaviours

In the too low window of tolerance

  • Feelings: cut off from feelings, shut down, disconnected
  • Behaviours: withdrawal, physically slowed down, passively going along with things

How to use the window of tolerance

When we’re in the just right window of tolerance, we can identify our feelings and handle what comes our way, even if a situation feels stressful. We fall out of our emotional window of tolerance for many reasons. Perhaps an accumulation of aggravations pile up. Perhaps one big problem lands in our laps.

The window of tolerance paints a vivid picture of how our emotions work: they fluctuate; they go up and down. That’s normal.

By imagining it, we can tune into our feelings, predict our triggers, and develop skills to manage unhelpful reactions. To begin, simply rate the intensity of your emotions throughout the day. It’s helpful to use a visual guide, such as this printable Feelings Thermometer.

The window of tolerance and COVID-19

Imagine your window of tolerance as a guide to how much COVID-19 news you can absorb at any given time.  How many updates.  Even how much of your loved one’s fears and worries.

Sometimes, you might feel overwhelmed and need to slide your window closed. You can turn off the news about the rising number of cases: take a walk, watch a comedy on Netflix, or pet your dog. 

Later, you can see where you are with your window.  Maybe you’re ready to let in a little more air, a little more information or conversation.

Tell your loved ones how you feel.  Of course, they might want their windows wide open, the wind gusting through, when you’re ready to seal those windows tight. There’s no right or wrong.  The key is mutual respect for each other’s needs, and clear, calm communication.

Why is this so important? We’re all in this together for the long haul.  There is so much news about the virus 24/7.  And of course, this news is vitally important.  It keeps us safe.  We need to know about social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands, and many other things.

However, we also need to maintain our emotional balance and manage our own windows.  It’s critical to check with ourselves, and know when we need a break or to be informed. 

Visual images, such as the window of tolerance, help you tune into your feelings so you manage your emotions about this brave new world.


Image credit: Freepik

Dr Stephanie Kriesberg is a clinical psychologist in private in the Boston area.  You can connect with her on Twitter @drskriesberg.

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