Tips for Teens: Understanding the Window of Tolerance

Everyone has a limit.

We can handle the anxiety, the frustration, the stress that comes up in our everyday life, until we just can't handle it anymore. We reach our tipping point. Our calm and collected bodies and brains give way to big outbursts, yelling, screaming, maybe even cursing out our friends or parents. We're no longer able to tolerate what's going on. We've passed the threshold of our "Window of Tolerance."

What can you handle?

When we operate within our window of tolerance, we are able to cope, calm down, and think through how to best solve problems. When we're operating outside of our window, our pre-frontal cortex, our "thinking brain," is unable to operate. We end up in fight, flight, or freeze mode - until we're able to calm down enough to re-enter our window.

window of tolerance hypo and hyper stages

There are two levels to our window: hyper and hypo.

In the hyper-arousal stage, we're very alert to our surroundings. Our behaviors when we pass this crest are very external, meaning people can usually tell when we've passed our limit. Look for yelling, screaming, crying, or wanting to hit/punch/kick. 

In the hypo-arousal stage, we tend to close in on ourselves. People who have dropped below their window of tolerance may close in on themselves, want to go to bed, and just totally disengage from others around them.

Everyone's window of tolerance is different.

You may have a friend who seems consistently calm. They may have a wider window of tolerance than you, meaning they can still experience  the same feelings of anxiety, anger, or sadness without feeling overwhelmed, or tipping off either end of their window. 

OR, situations that may seem small to us can set someone else off entirely. Their stress levels may build throughout the day, so that they're operating right at the highest level of their window. A small problem or concern can tip them fully over the edge. So while it may seem like they shouldn't be upset, it makes a lot of sense.

It's like filling a glass with water. The closer and closer you get to that edge, the smaller amount of water you need for that glass to totally overflow.

How to handle this:

Notice your own personal levels of stress, anxiety, frustration, or sadness. Ask yourself: what impacts me the most? When can I tell that I'm reaching the outer edges of my window?

Then, build a coping skills checklist. While only time can help you when you've passed the threshold, you can prevent yourself from crossing past your window by timely use of relaxation skills. When you notice your anxiety level rising in class, ask to get a drink of water and check in with your heart rate. If you're starting to feel very sad when yet another friend is busy for the weekend, try and come up with a few things that cheer you up even on your own.

And actually, using coping and relaxation skills in your day to day life helps make your window of tolerance bigger.

The more regularly you practice, the more likely you are to start your day off on a calm foot. Triggers and stressors are much easier to deal with if you're already calm. And the more you practice relaxation skills (including those in my 6 week mindfulness series), the easier it is to use one of those skills in the moment. 

Curious to hear more about handling stress, anxiety, or anger? Kelsey specializes in anxiety and anger management strategies for kids and teens, from age 4 through college. You can email her at Kelsey's office is located in Clayton, and she helps teens and college students throughout St. Louis, Brentwood, Kirkwood, University City, Town and Country, and Creve Couer.

Read more:

Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006).  Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Porges, S. W. (2011).  The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Siegel, D. J. (2011).  Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation.  New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.

Siegel, D. J. (2012).  Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology: An integrative handbook of the mind.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company.