As Breathwork Coaches, one of the very first things we learn for ourselves and our clients is how to assess states of emotional arousal and, importantly, the ability to regulate those emotions. This helps us ride the waves of day-to-day stressors and build our resilience in the face of bigger life challenges.
Nervous system regulation and something called the “window of tolerance” are closely interconnected, as they both play a significant role in determining our emotional and mental wellbeing. The nervous system is responsible for regulating unconscious processes like heart rate and respiration, as well as conscious processes like emotions and motivation. When the nervous system is functioning effectively, it can help us respond to stress in healthy ways and remain within our emotional comfort zone.
The window of tolerance refers to the range of emotions and arousal levels that we can tolerate and regulate effectively. Based on life experiences, upbringing and temperament, we each have a different level of emotional flexibility. When we’re within the comfortable range of our capacity, we’re better able to process emotions and respond to stress in healthy ways. On the other hand, when we’re outside of our window, we may experience feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, or dissociation.
The nervous system and the window of tolerance influence each other, as imbalances in the nervous system can shrink our window of tolerance, making it harder for us to regulate our emotions. When we introduce practices like mindfulness, breathwork, and self-care rituals, it can help improve our ability to regulate our emotional playing field and respond to stress in healthy ways which, in turn, expands our resilience, promoting better emotional and mental wellbeing.
Key concepts to understand about your nervous system and window of tolerance:
The nervous system plays a crucial role in regulating our mental and emotional landscape.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating unconscious processes such as heart rate, respiration, and digestion.
The sympathetic nervous system, a division of your autonomic nervous system, prepares your body for fight or flight response in response to stress or danger.
The parasympathetic nervous system, also a division of your autonomic nervous system, works to counteract the effects of your sympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation and calm.
The enteric nervous system, sometimes referred to as your "second brain," is a complex network of nerves within your digestive system that can also affect your emotions and mental state.
Chronic stress can have a negative impact on your nervous system and contribute to the development of mental health conditions.
Mind-body practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, and mindfulness can help regulate your nervous system and promote mental wellbeing.
The window of tolerance refers to the range of emotions and arousal levels that you can tolerate and regulate effectively.
It's essentially a comfort zone where you feel stable and in control.
When you’re outside of your window of tolerance, you may experience feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, panic, or dissociation.
The window of tolerance can vary from person to person, and can also change depending on the situation.
For some of us, our window of tolerance may be very narrow, meaning we have a low tolerance for stress and easily become overwhelmed.
For others, our window of tolerance may be wider, allowing us to tolerate and manage higher levels of stress.
Traumatic events, such as loss, chronic illness, or a natural disaster, can shrink your window of tolerance and make it harder for you to regulate your emotions.
When you’re within your window of tolerance, you’re better able to process emotions and respond to stress in healthy ways that are crucial for good mental health and building resilience.
Incorporating mindfulness into our daily routines, such as deep breathing or meditation, can help us stay centered and calm, even during times of stress. Movement practices, like yoga, can also improve the function of the nervous system and help us become more resilient to daily stressors. By incorporating small, daily moments of self-care practices, we can improve our mental health and enhance our overall sense of wellbeing.
For a quick nervous system reset, try these 3 techniques at home:
1. Deep Breathing: Deep breathing is a simple and effective way to reset your nervous system. It helps to reduce stress and promote relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Here's how to do it:
Sit in a comfortable position or lie down.
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling your belly rise as you do so.
Exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your belly fall as you do so.
Repeat this for several minutes, focusing on your breath and feeling your body relax.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in your body. This can help to reduce physical tension and promote relaxation, as well as reduce the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. Here's how to do it:
Find a comfortable position and take a few deep breaths.
Starting with your feet, tense the muscles in that area as much as possible, and hold for a few seconds.
Relax those muscles completely, feeling the tension release.
Move on to the next muscle group (calves, thighs, buttocks, etc.) and repeat the process.
Continue moving up your body until you've tensed and relaxed all the muscles.
3. Mindful Meditation: Mindful meditation is a practice that involves focusing your attention on the present moment, without judgment. It helps to reduce stress and promote relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Here's how to do it:
Find a quiet place to sit comfortably.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Focus your attention on your breath, noticing the sensation of the air moving in and out of your body.
Whenever your mind wanders (and it will!), gently bring your attention back to your breath.
Practice for several minutes, gradually increasing the amount of time as you get more comfortable with the practice.
These three practices are simple, effective, and can be done almost anywhere. They can help to reduce stress and promote relaxation, and can be a great way to reset your nervous system when you're feeling overwhelmed.