Window of Tolerance during COVID-19
It is fair to say that life at the moment is nothing like anything we have experienced before. Our whole way of living has changed, and we have no reference points to let us know how to cope, how long it will last, and what life will look like after we emerge from it. With little to guide us through this uncertainty, we can often fall back on our imaginations to fill the gaps which can lead to feelings of fear, powerlessness and catastrophising.
In many ways this is natural. We are only designed to handle a certain amount of stress or fear or anxiety. When we face too much of these feelings, we will go outside of what is called our Window of Tolerance. Normally, as humans, we are able to live most of life within our window. This looks like feeling safe, curious, available for others, resilient, empathic. We will only go outside of our windows during specific acute episodes of emotional distress.
Due to COVID, we have been experiencing a prolonged period of stress. Whilst many of us are worried about getting sick or infecting our loved ones, we are also stressed with losing our jobs or a reduction in income whilst simultaneously having to transform our homes into makeshift offices and gymnasiums. Relationships are strained and we aren’t allowed to huddle together in solidarity like in other times of distress.
With all this going on in the background, it is much easier to be pushed outside of our WOT. If you’ve been feeling numb or more overwhelmed than normal, this is why. If you have been struggling with basic day to day functions (eating, sleeping, concentrating on work) or little things are causing you to fly into a rage, this is why. If you’re spending days in bed or obsessively trawling social media for COVID related news, this is why.
So, what happens when we go outside of our window? The two responses are called Hyper-arousal or Hypo-arousal. You will probably recognise which of these you normally will swing to in time of distress.
Hyper-arousal is the feeling over being overwhelmed, angry, compulsive, chaotic, controlling. It is when we fly off the handle, overreact and cannot access our thinking and logic. It is when our fight/flight response is activated.
Hypo-arousal is the state of freeze. It is when we dissociate, can’t function. We become less empathetic, feel flat or dejected. It’s a feeling of not feeling. Numbness.
Both of these are natural responses to stress and anxiety, although usually we quickly come back to a state of calm arousal. Those of us who have a history of trauma in our childhood can often take longer to come back to and might find ourselves outside the window more often. But, due to the pandemic, more and more of us are finding ourselves losing control and behaving in ways we don’t recognise and can seem scary.
There are ways to return yourself to a healthy place if you find yourself swinging to either a hyper or hypo aroused sate. These can be used in the moment but can also be practised regularly to help widen your window.
- Mindfulness: One of the most effective ways to regain control of yourself is to stay in the here and now through mindfulness techniques. Noticing and acknowledging what you are feeling, staying curious about what thoughts are emerging and recognising triggers helps.
- Breathing: calm breaths from your belly will help to regulate and calm the overactive parts.
- Self-care: Basic things like going for a walk, cooling off, having a relaxing bath can all help. Making sure we are eating healthily and often plus get 8 hours of sleep will also help.
- Exercise: If you are feeling hyper-aroused, doing something physically exerting will help burn off some of the energy. Conversely, a gentle walk in the fresh air can also interrupt feelings of flatness and apathy.
- Stay connected: Feeling supported by others is an important part of self-care. Call someone who can support you and bring you back to the present. Love, laughter and connection all promote a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation.