January 7, 2021

Window of Tolerance: Hyper-arousal

Mental Health & Wellbeing

Not too long ago, I wrote about the Window of Tolerance. The Window of Tolerance is the space where we feel “just right” for managing our feelings and experiences. When we don’t feel physiologically overwhelmed, and can therefore be our best selves. Since then, we’ve as a nation experienced the 2020 Presidential elections, have seen more lives lost to COVID, and are back to sheltering at home in this new year. All of these incidents and more (remote learning and working from home to name a few) have all impacted our capacity to deal with stressful situations. In this post, I’d love to spend some time looking at what happens when we are hyper-aroused.

Defining Hyper-arousal

Your sympathetic nervous system is activated when you are hyper aroused. Simply put, most of us outside of the Window of Tolerance, in a hyperarousal state, are more likely to experience anxiety, anger, and “over functioning” tendencies. You will fight, take flight, or “fawn.” Aundi Kolber in her book, Try Softer, defines fawning as, “the actions that we take to appear vulnerable & sweet so that others will not want to harm you.” The actions taken during this state of being are done to protect yourself. However, when in this place, you may feel “out of control” or “consumed” by the intensity of your emotions.

How to Bring You Back Into Your Window

There are a few things that you can do to bring stability or a sense of security back into your body and mind when you are in a space of being hyper-aroused.

Slow Down

First, slow down. This may feel easier said than done, especially when you are in a space of needing to survive. One of the quickest ways to help your mind and body to slow down is to do some deep breathing. The act of exhaling triggers your parasympathetic nervous system to become activated. This is the part of your nervous system that helps you to relax. When engaging with this exercise, you want your exhale to be longer than your inhale. I tell people to breath in for 4 and exhale for 6. Then repeat.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

Once slowed down, you can acknowledge how you are feeling and offer validation for your feelings. For instance, when the pandemic first hit, I found myself overfunctioning and taking on more clients than I had before. While it was partially due to altruistic purposes, it was also because I needed something to cling to, to do because life felt very out of my control. Pushing hard and “white knuckling” it, could only last for so long before I had to step back and examine my anxiety. I realized the pandemic was going to be here much longer than anyone expected and that if I was going to make it through it, I would need to make some adjustments.

Determine Your Safety

Next you’ll want to determine, am I really unsafe? Sometimes you can use your environment and/or check in with others as a cue for safety. For those who are worried that they may have COVID, checking in with a medical provider may help assuage some of your fears for lack of safety.

Furthermore, consider how you can self-soothe by offering compassion towards yourself.


Lastly, you may find visualizing a container that you put all of your worries in to be comforting. This is an exercise that I do with many of my clients that creates some healthy disengagement from their stressors. Here are the steps for visualizing your container.

Designing Your Container

Your container should be strong enough to hold whatever stressors/grief you would put in it. Your container shouldn’t be fragile. It’s meant to be a space that won’t break and isn’t too small to hold all of your items in. It should be a two way system that allows you to put things in & take things out. Lastly, consider what kind of lid/covering it has. Does it have a lock, or a code that only you know, or a key to open it.

Putting your items in the container

Next, you’ll want to visualize yourself putting your stressors or grief in the container. Here are a few questions to reflect on during this part of the visualization:

Imagine putting all of your stressors or grief in the container, piece by piece. Maybe you notice the size of it, the weightness of it, how does it feel to drop it into the container? Is there anyone with you that’s helping you put the items in the container?

Now, Cover or close it.

Where are you going to put it?

Is that same person that was with you putting the items in the container also helping you carry it?

Now, put it away. How do you feel now that you’ve put it away?

Call Today!

If you’d like help continuing to explore strategies or techniques for getting back into your window of tolerance, know that I am available and would consider it an honor to be with you.


Written by therapist Pamela Larkin

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