What is the nervous system?
The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, sensory organs and the network of nerves that connect these organs with the rest of the body. One of the key functions of the nervous system, is that it regulates our fight, flight or freeze responses when the body faces significant stress, threat or danger.
What is the “Window of Tolerance”?
The window of tolerance is a zone where our nervous system is relaxed, calm, alert and engaged. When we are within our window of tolerance, we feel that we can cope with stressors that life throws at us. We may feel some stress, pressure, or feel a bit sluggish, but we are generally able to make rational decisions to cope.
The window of tolerance differs from person to person. Some people may have a wider zone and may be able to tolerate a higher level of emotional intensity or arousal, while others may not. Just think about the different reactions people have towards going on rollercoaster rides at amusement parks. Among our friends and family, we may be able to identify those whom you know would be game for it, and those who would not.
Fig. 1. The Window of Tolerance (adapted with permission from NICABM)
Stress can shrink our window of tolerance
When our stress levels get too high, our body and minds may become overwhelmed and naturally move into a state outside of our window of tolerance - either of hyperarousal (i.e. fight or flight responses) or hypoarousal (i.e. freeze responses).
Hyperarousal is a state when we feel extremely anxious, angry, or out of control. As a result, our bodies might respond by lashing out or getting into fights (i.e. being aggressive, shouting, throwing tantrums), or by running away to avoid the situation that is causing us stress and worry.
Hypoarousal on the other hand, is when we feel extremely ‘zoned out’ and numb, both emotionally and physically. We might feel really sad, or less motivated to participate in our usual activities and withdraw from others. Our body might feel exhausted or like it is frozen.
Both states of hyperarousal and hyperarousal are not how we choose to react, but it feels like our body and reactions have taken over.
What are some factors that can affect our “Window of Tolerance”?
Factors that narrow our window of tolerance:
- (Stress: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes in our lives and adjusting to such changes is stressful for adults and children alike. For example, some adults may be faced with job or financial uncertainties; while parents working from home need to juggle multiple roles and needs at the same time. Children may experience various stressors related to COVID-19 too, such as disruptions to their routines, worrying about friendships changing, or not being able to catch up academically. Stress makes us feel more easily overwhelmed and once we are out of the window of tolerance, it becomes harder to control our emotions, which can lead to other difficult interactions with others such as increased conflict or arguments with family members.
- Children and adults who have been through traumatic experiences also tend to have a smaller window of tolerance. This is because they may have been acclimatised to be on the lookout for danger or threats in their environment to survive, leading to states of either hyper- or hypo-arousal.
Factors that widen our window of tolerance:
- The presence of social support widens our window of tolerance. Children and adults who perceive that they are supported and accepted by others tend to cope better with challenges.
- Children and adults who have a wider range of emotional coping strategies (e.g. breathing, mind and body relaxation strategies, mindfulness, grounding) may find it easier to regulate their nervous system back within the window of tolerance.
How can I help to expand a child’s “Window of Tolerance”?
- Becoming more attuned to the child’s level of stress and type of stress that they are dealing with, and understanding how this may affect how they feel or behave
- Creating a supportive environment for the child by listening to their concerns and stressors especially during this pandemic
- Learning strategies such as breathing, grounding or mindfulness together with a child, which can help him/her (and ourselves!) to regulate the nervous systems back into the window of tolerance
- Seeking professional help if you are concerned about how the child is coping
- Some helpful articles about mindfulness activities for children, and nurturing family relationships during COVID-19 can be found here:
Acknowledgements This article was contributed by Mr Lester Lai, Associate Psychologist and Ms Jemi Chen, Principal Psychologist, Psychosocial Trauma Support Service, KK Women's and Children's Hospital.