How to Understand Your Window of Tolerance

During my college career, I have struggled with feeling so anxious because of work, school and various responsibilities that I end up becoming depressed and exhausted attempting to balance everything. Sometimes it feels like I’m on a rollercoaster that only goes up until I hit a steep drop. This summer, I was working 20-30 hours a week while taking seven credits of summer school online. Once I could feel myself getting sick from my unstable mental health, I decided to seek therapy outside of my university. 

While I was explaining to my therapist how I was feeling, she told me about a concept called the window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is defined as “the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively.” Most people who don’t struggle with their mental health are consistently within their window of tolerance. However, when people experience trauma in their lives, their window of tolerance can shrink. When people are outside of their window of tolerance, they either fall into a state of high anxiety called hyper-arousal or a depressive episode called hypo-arousal. Hyper-arousal triggers our body’s fight or flight response and hypo-arousal is our body’s freeze response.

Some excellent visuals and information about these arousal zones are shown here, here & here.

I have tried to make a conscious effort this semester to stay within my level of tolerance by taking steps to calm myself down when I’m anxious and trying to surround myself with friends when I’m feeling depressed. If you like ASMR, I would recommend listening to some videos on YouTube if you’re in hyperarousal or hypoarousal. This video by Gibi ASMR is my favorite to watch when I’m feeling stressed. If ASMR isn’t your jam, meditation music is a great way to relax. The YouTube channel PowerThoughts Meditation Club has dozens of instrumental videos that can help you calm down if you’re feeling anxious. Whenever I’m feeling depressed, I like to listen to upbeat music and sing in my car. More specifically, I have been listening to a lot of solo One Direction lately (here’s a playlist I made, if you’re interested). 

Whatever you do to expand your window of tolerance, it is important to recognize when you need to reach out to friends to chat or when you need to be alone and work through your emotions. It can be difficult to find a balance, but finding coping mechanisms that work best for you is a great place to start. I’m wishing you well on your mental health journey, collegiates!