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Emotional Regulation

Have you ever been triggered by something and it caused you to feel anxiety, increased irritability, or become impulsive in your responses. Perhaps you’re the opposite and you become numb, checked out, and disconnected from yourself and/or others. These are examples of times when we leave what is called our "window of tolerance" or our ability to manage stress in a collected manner.

What is the Window of Tolerance?

The “Window of Tolerance” is a term first used by Dr. Dan Siegel to illustrate that we have an optimal arousal zone that we are trying to maintain at any given time. When we within our window of tolerance (Ventral Vagal State), we feel calm, cool, collected, and capable of navigating life’s uncertainties’; however, when we are pushed outside of our window of tolerance by life’s stressors, it can cause us to have an assortment of behavioral and emotional responses that may not match our typical demeanor. This is also known as flight, fight, or freeze or the Polyvagal Theory.

I will use the below chart to illustrate

The yellow zone is our “Comfort Zone” and reflects our window of tolerance. In this zone we are calm, collected, and can use our wise mind to problem solve, plan, and engage in behaviors that reflect our values and beliefs. Although no one is dead center all the time, there is a range of emotion that we can experience, while still feeling in control.

Things that help us stay in the window of tolerance include mindfulness, grounding exercises, self-soothing behaviors, deep breathing, engaging in healthy relationships, and talking to ourselves in a compassionate manner.


Let’s say something stressful at work happens or you get in a disagreement with a friend or partner. You may find this stressor causes you to become overwhelmed, thus leaving your window of tolerance and moving into hyper-arousal (red zone). Hyper-arousal is reflective of your sympathetic nervous system, or your gas pedal, which prepares you to either run from your stressor or fight. This survival zone is equipping us with energy from adrenaline to fuel a "I can" mentality, such as "I can figure this out" or "I can survive this". We know we are in this zone when we feel high anxiety, anger, frustration, overwhelm, irritability, and rigidness. In this place we are unable to cognitively process in the same manner as which we would in the window of tolerance causing behaviors to look impulsive, chaotic, and may not reflect our core identify (ex: saying or doing something you later regret). Often times people feel the only way to calm themselves down is through overeating, drinking, and using substances, which can promote addiction. It’s not healthy to live in this state for long periods of time as it exhausts the body and can deplete you of key micronutrients, as well as cause adrenal fatigue. If someone is unable to self-soothe themselves in this state, their arousal will increase into Hypo-arousal.


The blue zone is Hypo-arousal or a Dorsal Vagal State. This is reflective of your parasympathetic nervous system or the break that causes you to go into a freeze response. In this zone you may notice you feel disconnected from yourself or others, numb, lack of motivation, and shut down. This is equivalent to a "I can't" mentality, such as "This is too much, I can't handle it" or "I can't make it stop". This thought process is associated with powerlessness and helplessness that leads to zoning out and dissociation as it feels like the only option available to escape the pain. Someone can also exhaust themselves from maintaining hyper-arousal, that they no longer have energy to maintain that state, and therefore shut down in hypo-arousal. This can look similar to depression as both lack energy or interest to engage in life. Eventually, once the trigger is removed, individuals will be able to calm themselves down, or regulate their mood, to where they are back in the window of tolerance and present in their body.

Emotional dysregulation can feel like cycling between hyper and hypo-arousal without consistently staying in the yellow zone for very long. This can be misinterpreted as bipolar when really, it’s a regulation issue. This is common in individuals who grew up in households where family members failed to validate their emotional experience, offer comfort, and teach them how to cope with stressful situations. In these situations, individuals are simply trying to do the best they can with the resources they have.

Part of therapy is learning how to first identify your own triggers, gain self-awareness of what it feels like to leave your window of tolerance, and practicing bringing yourself back to a grounded place.

Depending on if you are in a hyper or hypo-arousal state, you may need different distress tolerance skills to help you. For example, if you are hyper-aroused or overwhelmed state, calming techniques (down regulation) that are helpful include:

Deep breathing

Going for a quiet walk outside

Listen to calming music

Take a bath


Using a weighted blanket

Write in a journal

Petting your dog/cat

However, if you are in a hypo-aroused state where you are already calm, you need something that is going to boost your energy (up regulate). Distress tolerance skills for hypo-arousal can include:

Anything that stimulates the senses (candle, essential oils)

Going for a walk

Changing your scenery

Talking with a friend

Listening to energetic music

Playing a game

Sitting in a rocking chair

Practicing these techniques consistently will help you learn to better regulate your system effectively and maintain your window of tolerance, being present in you body. You will feel more in control of your behavior and more connected to who you are. And remember, no one is perfect, it’s all a learning process where we are trying to do the best we can, with what we have. For more in depth information, feel free to reach out to Chelsea McDonald or Jennifer Doctorovich.

Chelsea McDonald, MA, LPC


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