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The Tool for Understanding Emotional Regulation

February 16, 2023 by Mari Pfingston-Bigelow

Mark is stressed about the cost of unexpected home repairs, and has started to be more irritable with his spouse. Beverly spilled her full mug of coffee all over her passenger seat this morning, which has lowered her usual patience for project delays at work. Clarence feels the pressure of being the star player on his high school soccer team, causing him to withdraw and skip practices.

The Tool for Understanding Emotional Regulation

These are all typical examples of the cause-and-effect of life stressors leading to a negative reaction, either directly or indirectly related to the original stressor. This is an expression of our emotional regulation, or the ability to successfully process and respond to an emotional experience healthily. 

These small but consistent series of daily ups and downs are always occurring, and our ability to navigate our own emotional processes are always shifting because of those ups and downs. For example, Beverly isn’t normally bothered by work delays, but her tolerance for them is lowered when an outside stressor occurs right before work. Her ability to respond in a healthy way is diminished, and her anxiety around work deadlines are heightened for the rest of the day, in turn, affecting everyone around her.

The Window of Tolerance and Understanding Emotional Regulation

How can we come to fully understand our experiences and stress response? A framework for viewing our emotional regulation more clearly is called the Window of Tolerance.

This term, coined by Dr. Daniel Siegel in 1999, presents a method for looking at our own patterns of mood and stress response fluctuations. It brings into focus our own tendencies for how we handle stress on a day-to-day level by highlighting different categories of our emotional experience.

The Window of Tolerance model is made up of three parts; one is the optimal zone of arousal, which refers to the state that one is in during healthy emotional regulation. Within this space, one is able to manage and react to life’s ups-and-downs in a healthy way. However, the zone above and below can be seen as the defense mechanisms and negative emotions that set in when one steps outside of healthy functioning. Hyperarousal and hypoarousal, respectively, and are two sides of the same coin when it comes to our inability to deal with stress.

The Window of Tolerance and Understanding Emotional Regulation

Hyperarousal occurs when one’s ability to manage life is diminished and stress puts us into the fight-or-flight state of our nervous system. We’re over-active and on guard, leading to irritability, impulsive behavior, hypervigilance, restlessness, and other emotional reactions. 

Hypoarousal occurs when stress creates an opposite reaction, leading to the ‘freeze’ state of the nervous system. This looks like being paralyzed by decisions, overwhelm, lack of motivation, shame, and other similar reactions. Both of these states of high and low arousal are a reflection of parts of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) shutting down, creating an inability to think rationally and respond appropriately.

Why Use the Window of Tolerance

 The reason why the Window of Tolerance is so helpful is that it gives us a visual tool for relating to our internal emotional experience. For a concept that is as intangible as the ever-changing landscape of our emotional world, this tool allows us to process, reflect, and become curious about our own experience. It helps to bring tangibility to how we experience life by being able to thoughtfully look at our own triggers for entering hyper or hypo-arousal, and then take notice of how often we stay there.

This structure that acknowledges that our window is a moving target, and we are bound to end up outside of our optimal zone of arousal time and again, also helps in looking at ourselves with grace and compassion. If you’ve been in a consistent state of hyper or hypo-arousal, unable to cope with life in a healthy way, it can be a challenge to begin to look at your behavior. We don't often want to see when we haven’t been our best to ourselves or to others. It can also be embarrassing, furthering the unhealthy reactions. But taking that look, and ensuring our own accountability by recognizing the actions and apologizing for them, can go a long way toward learning better emotional regulation skills.

Now is the time to get curious. How can a tool like the Window of Tolerance be a window into understanding yourself better? A structure like the Window of Tolerance can help to remove the personalization of self-analysis, using this unbiased framework to look at ourselves with more clarity. It’s a helpful method for removing any shame or criticism that accompanies self-evaluation, and for amplifying curiosity. 

Try using this tool to evaluate your emotional regulation over the course of the past day, past week, and past month. You may even want to draw out your own window and write about the times that you’ve entered into each zone, and any reflections about existing within hyper or hypo-arousal for extended periods. Step into curiosity and allow yourself to explore with compassionate awareness.

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