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Window of tolerance: making space for stress

Apr 07, 2024

It may seem illogical and backward to consider making space for stress. But stress is a natural part of leading (and living), and there will always be another dumpster fire, workplace drama, or world event that derails your best-laid leadership plans. 

So, instead of trying to repress, ignore or avoid the fact that stress exists, why not instead build more space for it? 

That's where the window of tolerance theory comes in. I first learned about this in year one of my Somatic Experiencing training, and it was a game-changer. Instead of wasting endless energy on controlling stress (which doesn't work, by the way - I've tried it!), we can build space around it. 

Here's how it works...
Our nervous system is naturally designed to move us between activation and deactivation countless times every day. Our window of tolerance dictates how much activation and deactivation our nervous system can handle. At one end of the spectrum (or window), we have "hyperarousal" (too much activation), and at the other end, we have "hypoarousal" (too much deactivation).

For someone with a small window of tolerance, a small stressor, like breaking their favourite coffee mug, might throw them over the edge. For others with a wider window of tolerance, the worst workplace chaos barely seems to phase them. 

When we're outside our window of tolerance...
POV: You're in a meeting. That special co-worker who rubs you the wrong way steals your idea (again). You feel yourself getting red in the face, your pulse races, and you want to explode. But you suck it in because your boss is in the room, so you spend the rest of the meeting fuming and sending back-channel DMs to anyone who will listen. You leave the meeting and send more reactive messages. Then you feel exhausted and stare blankly at the screen, reading the same email 14 times, getting nothing done and catastrophizing about everything and anything. 

When we're in our window of tolerance...
POV: You're in the same meeting. That special co-worker steals your idea (again). You notice you're getting mad, but you remind yourself to feel your feet on the floor, take a deep breath and calmly point out that you'd already suggested that idea and that you're glad the team is on the same page. You pull them aside after the meeting and rationally ask them to be more mindful of talking over you. 

4 ways to start understanding your window of tolerance:
1. Get curious about whether you're leading mostly within or outside of your window of tolerance (this may vary day-to-day)
2. What signs can you pay attention to when you're hitting hyperarousal (too much activation)? (emotions, behaviours, sensations etc.)
3. What signs can you pay attention to when you're hitting hyporarousal (too much deactivation)? (emotions, behaviours, sensations etc.)
4. What situations, environments or stressors in particular push you outside your window?

With awareness, comes choice. With choice, comes change! 

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