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Mental Health Awareness & The Window Of Tolerance

7th May 2021

MyMindPal co founder Khody Damestani shares his thoughts and experiences as a therapist during the pandemic…

Mental health awareness week is here again so I would like to share my observations with you as someone who works in this area day in day out.

The last year has been a very busy time for me in my private therapy practice. Many people who were already struggling with their mental health before the pandemic are requiring more support now and many people who have never struggled before have found themselves feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with the tasks of daily living.  

Narrowing your window of tolerance

One way of understanding this observation is examining it through the lens of something called our window of tolerance.

Our window of tolerance can be defined as how much stress our brains and nervous systems can endure before we feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. Some individuals are lucky and are born with windows that are naturally wider when compared to others.

However we now know that when we have experienced ongoing stress, trauma or childhood abuse or neglect that our windows can become narrowed. Without the right support at the time experiences like these very often continue to live on in our nervous systems often for many years.

Untreated trauma and stress

Trauma or unexamined stress can impair the functioning both of our bodies and our minds and make us more vulnerable to experiencing mental health challenges in the future.

I was asked by a friend recently why so many people she knows that have never experienced mental health challenges before now seem to be really struggling. I believe that the window of tolerance provides us with the lens to answer that question.

How our minds and bodies respond to stressful events in the present is significantly influenced by how we responded to those in the past and whether or not we were able to fully recover from them.

The past catching up with you

Many people are still carrying the aftermath of past stressful events in their bodies and brains. Without the right support at the time these experiences can remain unprocessed and unresolved resulting in negative thinking, lowered self esteem and tension and dysregulation in the body.

The brain is incredibly adaptable and It is possible to still function relatively well in spite of having a narrowed window of tolerance. That is until something happens that creates a stress response in the body. In these circumstances the unresolved stress from the past can be triggered and released increasing the intensity of what you are feeling in the present.

What is fascinating is that I have noticed that most of the time this happens outside of our conscious awareness. In other words you may not be able to recognise that the stress you are feeling right now is not just about what Is going on in your life currently but also about what has happened in the past as well.

You may not realise or believe that past stressful events still exert an influence over how you respond to stressful seemingly unrelated events in your life now. However in many instances they certainly do.

How to strengthen your window of tolerance

The good news is that the window of tolerance once narrowed is not fixed. It can be widened again. Exercises such as body scans, visualisations and breathing can do just that.

Developing a routine that focuses on widening your window of tolerance will help you to believe that you can cope with the challenges that life throws at you now as well as offering a level of protection against future stressful events.

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