What is your window of tolerance? Blog post on Find My Energy, recovery from CFS

What is Your Window of Tolerance?

Understanding your window of tolerance opens up a path for living a more energised, joyful life.

In my last blog post (if you missed it, follow this link to read it now), I introduced you to a model of your Central Nervous System, to help you track how you react to events. And I explained that this is just the first breadcrumb on a curious path towards recovery from CFS. So, today, we’re going to explore the next piece: your window of tolerance.

If you’re wondering what I mean by “window of tolerance”, this analogy may help. Have you ever noticed how different people react very differently to a similar event? Maybe you know someone who is always calm and unflappable, no matter what happens. Perhaps you have another friend who you know is always going to turn a simple issue into a drama. And yes, part of this is about personality. But there is another angle that I want to explore here.

What is your window of tolerance?

Do you remember, in the last blog, I showed you this diagram:

Diagram illustrating the Central Nervous System map and how it relates to stress and trauma in chronic fatigue. Find My Energy blog post.

And I explained that the dotted lines represent what is happening in the Central Nervous System in response to an event. (If you need a refresher, follow this link to re-read the post).

Well, the green area along the bottom (Ventral Vagal/Social Engagement) is the area in which we feel calm. In this state, our cells are maintaining themselves, and we’re supporting health. Emotionally, we are open to making new friends, to contributing positively to the world around us. Mentally, we feel calm, rational, and able to access balanced perspectives on life.

Imaginary example: the abusive email

Let’s now imagine that you and your co-worker are happily sitting at your desks, getting on with your work. An alert pops up on each of your computer screens, to say you’ve just received a new email from your boss.

You open the email. Your boss is not at all happy with either of you. The email is aggressive, berating you both for not getting a new client, telling you your work is substandard, you are lazy. Fill in whatever else you wish. Basically, this is not a pleasant email to read.

Now, both of you have received exactly the same email. So, why is it that one of you reacts by laughing it off and then coming up with a practical solution? – Maybe something like: “The boss is in a bad mood today! I guess we’d better pull those sales charts together and show him we’re not the idiots he seems to think.” While the other one reacts in panic? – perhaps: “OMG, I’m going to lose my job for sure this time! How am I going to fund my kids’ education without a job? What’s my partner going to say when they find out?”

You might just put this down to personality. But have you ever considered that your “personality” is partly determined by how you react to the world around you? Your reactions to the world around you are driven by your Central Nervous System.

Your Window of Tolerance in pictures

So, let’s look at what is happening in the nervous systems of these two imaginary people.

Diagram to illustrate the Window of Tolerance in the Central Nervous System. This explains how two people can react differently to the same event. Find My Energy website shares the full blog post.

The first person is represented by the diagram on the left. The second person is the diagram on the right. In both cases, the experience of sitting at the desk, then opening and reading the email, is represented by the white dotted line.

So, focus on what happens to that line. In the first (calm) person, the line goes up (“danger” response triggered by the email), and calms down as the person comes up with a solution to the problem. (Show the sales figures to the boss). In all of this, the white line never leaves the green zone.

Now look at the second person: the white line is identical, but when it gets escalated, it goes straight up into the red (fight/flight) zone. In other words, this email is perceived as a potentially life-threatening situation. Yes, losing your job probably would be serious. This person maybe sees the logic of their colleague’s suggestion to show the sales chart, and calms down, returning to the green zone once again.

So, why the difference? Well in the first person, the green zone is much wider than in the second person. This is what I mean by the Window of Tolerance. It is the propensity of your nervous system to be triggered into fight/flight.

What about the black line?

Now, all of us are going to get into fight/flight at some point. If we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t live too long. If someone is pointing a gun to your head and you don’t feel the urge to run away or fight them off, there would be something very wrong!

So, when you look at the black line in the diagram, this might represent a more serious situation. Say, finding a burglar in your house.

Again, person A escalates right up into the red zone, but has the capacity to return to their safe green state. While person B experiences the same degree of escalation, but ends up passing straight through red (fight-flight) and becoming overwhelmed, entering the blue (freeze) zone. From that point, it is harder to return down to green. So, we see the yo-yo between fight/flight and freeze that I talked about last time (again, if you need a reminder, click here to read that blog post).

Long-term, getting stuck in that yo-yo pattern means your body is rarely (perhaps never) in the supportive position of being able to maintain cells. The end result can be chronic disease, in many different forms.

What determines how you react to life?

You may be someone who has been called “too sensitive”, or told that you “over-react” to things. Or perhaps you have made those observations about another person. If you have been on the receiving end of such comments, you will know how unhelpful they are. This label brings shame and blame. It implies that you should have reacted differently. It may also imply (or even explicitly state) that you are somehow weak or inferior for these “over-reactions”.

But if we frame this in the context of the nervous system, we see a very different story. Your nervous system is an automated system. For good reason. When your life is under threat, you don’t have time to pause and think things through slowly. You need to react immediately, or you might not survive.

We have also just said that each of us has a different Window of Tolerance. This is basically your level of reactivity – or sensitivity. So, again, it is not a conscious reaction. But if it isn’t conscious, what determines it?

Daily life

We cannot ignore daily life and our reactions to it. So, there is certainly a place for taking stock. Are there ways in which you could become more conscious – more mindful – of your thoughts and emotions?

Perhaps there are skills you can learn to help you slow down and think more calmly before leaping into arguments, for example. Skills like breathing techniques, or EFT (Tapping), can provide immediate calm in a situation that is not life-threatening, but which has triggered your nervous system. (If you want to find out more about EFT, follow this link).

So, if you recognise that you are someone who is living fairly consistently in a fight/flight or freeze state, this is not going to support your health in the long run. It is worth considering what you might do to change habitual patterns of behaviour. But that is only part of the story.

Inherited factors

That last section might have made you feel anger, or shame. You might have been told repeatedly to “just change your mindset”. Perhaps you are already using a lot of tools to cultivate a calmer approach to life. But you’re finding you still react to things that don’t bother other people. And you may well be beating yourself up about that. (Ironically, the beating yourself up part is just adding to the sense of danger that is causing your nervous system to react!)

So, we all need to understand that we are born with our nervous system at a certain set point. We don’t enter this world as a blank slate. Epigenetics has shown that our genes switch on and off in response to their environment. And we actually have some control over that process, but few of us realise it.

So, although we can switch genes on or off, if we don’t know we can do this, or don’t know how to do it, we end up passing on our genetic adaptations to the next generation.

If your parents or grandparents experienced traumatic events in their lifetime, causing their nervous system to lose some of its tolerance, that is going to be passed on to you. So, you are entering this world with a lower point of reactivity.

This is called Ancestral Trauma, and it is a very real problem in the world today. Think for a moment about the experiences of your own family throughout history: a couple of World Wars, gender discrimination, racial hatred… There’s a long list for you to consider…!

Childhood factors

Now, you may, or may not, be aware that a baby’s nervous system is not fully developed. It comes online gradually, as different parts of the brain develop through childhood. That means, the baby is reliant upon the adults around it to help it learn how to calm itself when it has become aroused. What arouses it? Anything that feels uncomfortable and could be a threat to life. Needing food is an obvious example. Starvation really will kill a baby.

But there are a host of less obvious examples too. The need for connection: the baby needs to know that it is being looked after because it cannot survive on its own. So, the mechanism of crying isn’t only about asking for food (for example). It can be a simple need for reassurance that there is an adult on hand who cares about the baby’s survival.

In a tiny baby, the crying is a signal that the baby has moved out of the green zone and into the red fight/flight. It needs an adult to settle it back into the green zone. If that doesn’t happen, the energy for continuing to cry is going to run out, so the baby will stop crying. In a tiny baby, this isn’t a sign that all is well, it is a sign that the nervous system has entered the freeze response.

That is not sustainable long-term. So, the child will find ways to adapt to keep itself safe. Those adaptations become patterns of behaviour that get carried into adulthood. This is a huge topic in itself: Developmental Trauma. So, I am going to cover that in more detail in other posts. But just be aware that this is another factor in how the adult nervous system responds to the world around it.

What can you do about this?

Now, it may seem like this is all pretty depressing news. If part of your nervous system has been determined by your ancestors who are dead, and part has been determined by your childhood, which is long past, where does that leave you?

Well, it is possible to heal both ancestral and developmental trauma. So, it isn’t a case of just being unlucky and stuck with this.

As I mentioned above, the study of epigenetics has demonstrated that we have way more control over our biology than we previously thought. But it requires a conscious effort on our part to follow that path. So, if you’re willing to learn more about doing that, and to seek recovery from chronic disease, then you have found yourself in the right place.

I invite you to use the link below to find out more about my work and discover how I might be able to help you. Take the first step on your recovery path today!