Opening the Window of Stress Tolerance: Techniques for Self Regulation

Some folks tolerate stress and respond to the demands of life with ease. Others struggle. The Window of Tolerance describes the zone of nervous system arousal in which an individual is able to function most effectively in their lives. When they’re in the center of their window, they receive, process, and integrate information and respond to daily demands with relative ease. Their brain functions well and processes stimuli effectively. They can make calm, rational decisions based on self-reflection and values without withdrawing or feeling overwhelmed. When stressful events happen, their nervous system may be pushed to the edges of their window of tolerance, but with healthy self-regulation techniques, they can return to the center of the window without losing functionality in their lives. When something pushes them outside the window of tolerance, both hyper- and hypo-arousal can make rational thought, reflection and calm responsiveness next to impossible. Things can get messy.

The thing is, everybody’s window is different. Some folks are born with a wide window of tolerance and maintain that over the course of their lives. They tend to move through their lives, at least most of the time, without getting overly ruffled or distressed while also feeling their emotions in a healthy way. Stressful events may push them to the edges of their window of tolerance, but they are able to regulate their nervous system in healthy ways. Others start with a narrow window and are easily overwhelmed and distressed even by very small things; they may have difficulty with self regulation from the beginning. Still others are impacted by traumatic events or other issues that can narrow their window of tolerance at any point in their lives. Many learn unhealthy regulating techniques from parents, family, friends, and society. One of those techniques is using drugs or alcohol.

Abusing substances can be an attempt to self-regulate or move back into the window of tolerance, and it can even feel effective. The trouble with adding alcohol or other drugs to the system is that the chemicals themselves cause dysregulation. While drugs like cocaine and meth can initially seem to help with depression and fatigue, ultimately, their withdrawal causes exactly what their use was supposed to counteract. Similarly, while alcohol may, at first, calm anxiety and hyperactivity, withdrawal from alcohol can bring on both states. Long term use of substances can cause a narrow window to become even narrower, making self-regulation extremely difficult. The notion of tolerating stress of any kind can seem like somebody else’s silly dream.

Building a toolkit of healthy self-regulation tools is important for everyone, and building such a toolkit is a great step to take no matter where you are in your journey of recovery from addiction. Below you’ll find several self-regulating tools that you can experiment with and practice and that can help open your window of tolerance and make it easier to stay in the center of that window.

Psychotherapist Lori Gill recommends trying and practicing regulation techniques when you’re feeling calm. Like everything else, learning is easier when we’re unruffled, and remembering to use an unpracticed tool when our brains are dysregulated is extremely difficult. When you’re feeling centered and comfortable, try these and see which ones you like. Practice your favorites to help find your way back into and even grow your window of tolerance.

Techniques for Regulating Hyper-Arousal

  • Sipping water through a straw
  • Practicing Diaphragmatic/Belly Breathing
  • Jumping on a mini-trampoline*
  • Using a weighted blanket*
  • Taking a warm bath or shower or even placing your hands in warm water
  • Stomping your feet or jumping up and down
  • Shaking your hands or even your whole body
  • Listening to soothing music
  • Rolling on a yoga ball
  • Eating comforting foods
  • Practicing EFT – Tapping
  • Practicing Child’s Pose and other poses that bring the belly and face down
  • Self-hugging or Havening

Techniques for Regulating Hypo-Arousal

  • Smelling essential oils
  • Eating a crunchy snack
  • Moving around or dancing to music
  • Jumping on a mini-trampoline*
  • Rocking in a rocking chair
  • Blowing bubbles through a straw
  • Using a Weighted blanket*
  • Finger painting
  • Bouncing gently on a yoga ball
  • Practicing chest opening yoga poses like sphinx pose
  • Splashing cold water on your face
  • Practicing Breath of Fire

*Notice that some of the techniques are listed for both hyper- and hypo-arousal. Try as many as you like, and keep the ones that work.

Having a nice, open window of stress tolerance helps us to be more resilient people. No matter what your window looks like now, you can open it up in a healthy way. Practice the tools we’ve included here, see what feels best to you, and over time, you will build your nervous system’s ability to handle stress more effectively, which will make moving around in your life more comfortable and satisfying.

If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.  You can use the online chat on any page of this website or call us at 1-888-448-LUNA.