In my work, I’ve found certain frameworks to be helpful for understanding and perceiving our sense of balance and wellness. To illustrate this, let’s consider the following two scenarios:
Sara, 22, is at work typing away at her laptop. Her boss walks in and asks, “Sara, where is that report already?” Sara looks up with focused eyes and slight tension in her shoulders, takes a breath, and considers the question. Within seconds, her brain computes what’s being asked and forms the appropriate response. Smiling, she replies, “Jeff. Hi. I emailed it to you this morning. I also gave a printed copy to your assistant.”
Now imagine the same scenario—only this time, when Sara hears Jeff, she suddenly feels anxious. Her heartbeat quickens, her breathing constricts, and she becomes confused. She fumbles around her desk, trying to find something to give him. Even though she already emailed the report, in the panic of the moment, she could not recall having done so. She grows more frantic as she searches through the papers and knocks over her coffee mug. Her stomach twists into knots, and she dreads another ulcer forming.
Imagine one last scenario. Jeff asks about the report, but this time Sara scowls, clenching her teeth, and snaps, “What are you talking about? Your assistant must have lost it! I gave it to him this morning!” She swallows her blood pressure pill and returns to her work.
When we look at these two scenarios, the interesting differences to consider are regulation/dysregulation, resilience and perseverance, and the window of tolerance.
A common expression people use nowadays is “I felt overwhelmed,” or maybe, “I was flooded.” As it turns out, this description may be capturing actual changes in our nervous system. According to neuroscience research, when a person is in overwhelm, their prefrontal cortex (also known as the executive brain, or the center for logical reasoning and problem solving) becomes less active and goes “offline.” Physiological changes in heart rate, breath, and stress hormone secretion also occur. Keeping that in mind, we begin to see how overwhelm can be an experience of dysregulation.
Regulation, on the other hand, can be seen as a state of internal harmony where the three parts of our brain—executive, limbic and reptilian—are communicating effectively. In this state, our nervous system can digest the information it receives, and we can think clearly and respond effectively to present moment situations.
Let’s go back to Sara for a moment. In the first scenario, the impact of Jeff’s communication brings Sara into alert. The sympathetic nervous system brings her eyes to focus and tenses her shoulders to prepare her for action. At the same time, that breath she took supports regulation through the parasympathetic nervous system. In the second scenario, on the other hand, Sara becomes triggered. A fear-based response takes over, and the spiral into dysregulation begins. In scenario three, Sara dysregulates towards anger and fight mode. When Sara’s system remains regulated, she is able to respond more effectively to the situation than she is able to when her system becomes dysregulated.
Each person’s “zones” differ, as they are unique to our history and circumstances. Some people have fairly wide windows of tolerance and are able to respond effectively to a range of stress intensity. Others might have a narrow window and fall outside of the zone at what might be considered by others to be milder stressors.
Interestingly, dysregulation is not specific to any certain event. The impact of an event is different for different people. In fact, the impact of the same event can be different for the same person at a different time of day or during a different point in life. This idea brings us to the window of tolerance.
The Window of Tolerance
Also known as the optimal zone of regulation, the window of tolerance was first introduced in 2010 by Dr. Dan J. Siegel. The concept proposes that people have a zone of arousal within which they are able to respond effectively to life. When they are within this “window,” their nervous system works harmoniously to successfully achieve certain goals—walking across a room, solving a math problem, and engaging socially with others. When people are within their window, they are regulated. When they are outside the window, they are dysregulated.
Each person’s “zones” differ, as they are unique to our history and circumstances. Some people have fairly wide windows of tolerance and are able to respond effectively to a range of stress intensity. Others might have a narrow window and fall outside of the zone at what might be considered by others to be milder stressors. And even for those with wide windows, certain stressors linked to historical challenges might trigger them beyond their zone. This is why we see one person becoming overwhelmed in response to an event while another does not.
Factors related to personal wellness can have an influence on our windows. For instance, think of a time you were sleep-deprived. How did you feel? Chances are you were more irritable than usual, perhaps on edge. Your window that day was probably narrower than it is on other days. Chronic stress and early adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are also correlated with greater dysregulation. As such, both can be thought to compromise a person’s window.
The presentation of the impact of stressors manifests differently in different people and may at times go unrecognized. For some people, the impact of stressors is more apparent on the psychological level, for others, it appears more clearly in their physical health. And quite often, the impact is present in a person’s intimate relationships too—though on the outside, that may not be apparent.
Regardless of the many and varied ways stress and trauma can impact the window of tolerance, people still generally do whatever they can to find a way to survive.
Resilience and Perseverance
Resilience, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the capability of a body that has experienced strain to recover its size and shape, particularly when stress has caused the change in size or shape, or, the ability of an individual to adjust to and/or recover from change or misfortune.
As it relates to this article, along with personal health and wellness, resilience can be thought of as the system’s ability return to the optimal zone or to maintain regulation and stay within the zone.
Perseverance, on the other hand, is the continued effort to achieve something in spite of opposition, failure, or other challenges. When I think of people who say they feel “burned out,” that they are “running on empty,” or those who might describe themselves as “underdogs” or “disadvantaged,” but somehow they still carry on and do what they feel necessary to get through each day—I think of perseverance. The key difference between resilience and perseverance, to me, is whether someone is performing within their window of tolerance or outside this window.
Human capabilities for resilience and perseverance are inspiring, and both are to be celebrated and admired. At the same time, I believe it is important to consider (and remember) that operating from a place of perseverance for a long period of time can be compromising to health as well as interpersonal relationships. Constantly persevering may come at a price. Finding ways to build our resilience, on the other hand, can be of great importance to our well-being, as well as that of our families and communities.
We each have our unique window of tolerance and trigger points shaped by our life experiences, and we each have our own pattern and path of moving between regulation and dysregulation and perseverance and resilience. My hope is that, with ourselves and others, we can work to:
- Become more familiar with the signs of regulation, dysregulation, perseverance and resilience;
- Experience more appreciation, respect, compassion, and kindness for perseverance;
- Use this understanding to guide our relationships;
- Engage in activities that support regulation;
- Invest time in building resilience in ourselves and our kids.
If any of these steps prove challenging or difficult, or you would like to help identifying these signs and your own window of tolerance, a compassionate, qualified mental health professional may be able to offer assistance and support.
- Adverse childhood experiences: Looking at how ACEs affect our lives & society. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://vetoviolence.cdc.gov/apps/phl/resource_center_infographic.html
- Marin, M. F., Lord, C., Andrews, J., Juster, R. P., Sindi, S., Arsenault-Lapierre, G., … & Lupien, S. J. (2011). Chronic stress, cognitive functioning and mental health. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 96(4), 583-595.
- Perseverance. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perseverance
- Resilience. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.