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In my last blog, I discussed resilience in mental health, what it means, and some ways we can think about it. Today I will look at some more practical things we can look at doing in order to build our resilience. 

We can think of and look at our resilience through a model called the window of tolerance. We all have a threshold for the amount of adversity and difficulty that we can cope with at any one time. Think of this as a window. The size of every person’s window will be different and dependent on their life experiences – particularly those from a young age, and on the amount of trauma they have experienced. 

When a person is within their window of tolerance they are able to function effectively. This does not mean that things do not test their resilience, more that the person is able to regulate in a way that means they do not leave their window. Whilst a person remains in their window then they can process information, interact with others and integrate their immediate experiences.

So what happens when a person leaves their window? Remember, everyone’s window is a different size. If two people face the same challenges, one may remain in their window of tolerance and the other may leave. 

When someone leaves their window of tolerance they will begin one of 2 distinct survival-based processes which are driven by an increased perception of danger. Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal, otherwise known as fight, flight, freeze and flop. Firstly let’s break down what these terms mean.

Hyperarousal – Otherwise known as fight, flight or freeze. This is where our brains engage in action-oriented responses to the perception of danger. Our brain is readying us to either fight the danger or run away from it. This process comes with a range of physical symptoms and experiences. A person may feel faint, have increased blood flow, feel nauseous or like they need to go to the toilet often. They may even experience a feeling of being frozen ‘like a rabbit in the headlights. This process is driven by a part of the brain called the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ When a person is experiencing hyperarousal they may describe feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and out of control.

Hyporarousal – Otherwise known as the shutdown response. We experience this response when we are so overwhelmed by our experience that our bodies begin to shut down. This process may make a person feel numb, frozen, or like they are not really there. This process is driven by a part of the brain called the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ Here a person may feel spaced out and surreal. 

Both of these processes are not something that is chosen, they happen to a person when they leave their window of tolerance and are unconscious. 

Working to strengthen our window of tolerance

So now we know more about what the window of tolerance is and what happens when we leave it, we can think about ways in which we can strengthen the window and make it larger. This is a way we can build our resilience and be able to regulate ourselves in the face of life’s challenges. Working with a counsellor or psychotherapist is a great way to help expand our windows, talking therapy provides a non-judgemental and reflective space to explore issues that will have determined the size of a person’s window such as trauma and significant early life experiences. 

There are ways we can work on strengthening our windows outside of the therapy room. What is useful is to assign a score to our moment-to-moment sensory experience. When beginning this may be something that is done after leaving the window. Upon realising that our resilience was stretched and that we entered hyper/hypoarousal, we can reflect and ask ourselves ‘ What was the intensity of that experience like for me?’ Then we can assign a score out of 10. If I leave my window of tolerance and realise that the score was 7/10, this then becomes the edge of my window. In future, if I ever expect a situation to push me above a 7/10, then I am aware that my resilience will be stretched and I may leave my window. 

We can also reflect on how we know what the score is at any given time by listening to what our bodies are telling us at that moment. Focussing on our bodily experiences helps us to find clues for the future that we may be leaving our window of tolerance. Such symptoms may include:

  • Tight chest
  • Restless legs
  • Sudden headaches
  • Nauseous stomach

If I leave my window of tolerance at a score of 7/10 the next useful question to ask is ‘What can I do now to make the score a 6/10?’ There are 2 main ways we can regulate our experience to stay in our windows. 

Self-regulation – This is where we can do things by and for ourselves that will help to lower the intensity of our experience and help us to relax. These may be acts of self-care such as getting into nature or going for a walk. It may be a grounding technique such as 5,4,3,2,1 or breathwork. 

Regulation through others – This is where we reach out to someone else and regulate through that connection. This may be contacting someone in your support network who is understanding and empathic to your experience. 

Working to recognise and strengthen our window of tolerance is an important part of building our overall resilience. If you would like to access low-cost talking therapy then please contact us on 0113 285 2899.

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