All people have a point where it becomes "too much", "the batteries are empty" or you "meet the wall". You simply do not have the strength to deal with more challenges or demands in everyday life. In psychology, we can refer to this condition as "being outside one's tolerance window."

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This is written by Bjørnar Haara, psychologist in The online psychologists, in a new guest post on The article focuses on how a good understanding of one's own tolerance window can be helpful in gaining more control over one's own anxiety and physical symptoms. 

Here you read the whole post: 

Do you have problems with physical symptoms that the doctor, medication or the new diet can not help you with?

Physical ailments such as:


  1. Nausea
  2. Upset stomach (eg a lot of air and loose stools)
  3. Dizziness
  4. Sudden tinnitus
  5. Migraine
  6. Suddenly difficulty seeing or thinking clearly
  7. That you suddenly do not feel present in your body

Then this article may be of particular help to you. 

This list is an overview of typical symptoms you can get when you are outside your tolerance window. These are physical ailments that are very common while there is little knowledge that there may be anxiety symptoms triggered by repressed unconscious conflicting emotions.*

Therefore, with this article, we want you to learn about the connection between emotions, anxiety and physical symptoms and that you yourself can become better acquainted with your tolerance window.

* Of course, if you are struggling with these symptoms, but have not been in contact with your GP yet, it is important that you check with your GP first. As there may potentially be other medical causes as well. You can also observe even if these symptoms vary depending on what kind of challenges you experience in everyday life.


The window of tolerance

All people have a point where it becomes "too much", "the batteries are empty" or you "meet the wall". You simply do not have the strength to deal with more challenges or demands in everyday life. In psychology, we can refer to this condition as "being outside one's tolerance window."


Emotions and the window of tolerance

We can end up outside our tolerance window not only due to external challenges, such as work or study. Conscious / unconscious conflicting emotions in close relationships can also be very anxious.

When this article was originally written as part of a article series dealing with emotions it will therefore focus on the connection between emotions and our window of tolerance. Nevertheless, despite the article's focus on emotions, it will also have transfer value to how to deal with difficult thoughts, situations and memories.


Conflicting emotions can trigger anxiety

Conflicting feelings of anger towards someone you love at the same time can be very anxious. We can get so angry that some of us could have attacked. Another part of us wants to protect at the same time. How much conflicting emotions we "tolerate", however, varies from person to person and depends on our tolerance window - also called anxiety capacity. That is, our body has a certain capacity before it says "stop this is too much / dangerous."

As we will take a closer look, one will not necessarily always notice being "outside" as something very unpleasant. Still, it has a price.

You will, for example, be able to lose access to the resources that emotions can be in our lives. As an example, when our mind is suppressed, we may have difficulty standing up for ourselves when others do not respect our boundaries.


Anxiety triggers strategies / defenses

When we experience anxiety of various forms, we use different strategies such as avoiding and withdrawing. We like to distract ourselves with a TV series or mobile phone or dampen the turmoil and thinking with a glass of wine. We can go for a long jog or call a good friend to talk to.

These attempts at self-care and regulation usually work effectively in the short term. However, it may vary how appropriate they are in the long run. This depends on, among other things, how flexible we are, how often they are used and the long-term consequences.


Learn to recognize your body's signals

Many people do not know what kind of signals the body gives when we approach our threshold or are already above it. Therefore, we want to help you get to know your tolerance window.

By learning to recognize your body's signs, it will be easier to respect yourself so that you can better adapt, take care of and regulate yourself. In the long run, it can also be helpful to expand your tolerance and capacity. This will make it easier and safer to access the resources of emotions.


More about the window of tolerance

Just as some people are faster than others, we also have different capacities for how much stress, anxiety, and conflicting emotions we can handle. This capacity is something we develop in a childhood together with good caregivers. A childhood characterized by a good mix of security and challenges is also important. Some people also have lower or better capacity biologically.

Fortunately, it is never too late to build capacity and expand one's tolerance window whether it is in therapy or on one's own.


How do I know I'm "inside"?

The voluntary muscles are activated and you are ready to handle challenges.

When we feel relaxed, present, accessible and close in contact with others. Are flexible and open, can reflect and assess a situation neutrally. Or we are playful and creative. Then we are naturally well within our tolerance window.

But what about when we face a challenge? How can we then know if one is inside / outside?

When our voluntary "cross-striped" muscles are activated, it is a sign that you are within the tolerance window. Furthermore, activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to a "fight or flight" mode. Both systems help us to mobilize our resources and prepare us to face the challenge.

You can feel it yourself when you feel tense in the muscles. So tension is often a good sign that we are "within" our tolerance window. Furthermore, you can recognize that you are "within" when you, for example, "sugar" to personal or challenging questions. "How are you really doing?"

Overview of signs that you are within your tolerance window:


  1. Closed hands
  2. Tension headaches
  3. Tense arms, shoulders, neck, feet and legs
  4. Sucking
  5. Bitten jaws

The most important sign that we are inside is that we are able to think clearly and are flexible in the face of challenges.

So that we are inside does not necessarily mean that you are relaxed but you are mobilized to handle the challenge.


How can I know that I am "outside"?

There are different approaches to how we can categorize signs that we are "inside" or "outside" our tolerance window.

One way to categorize the tolerance window is, as the model outlines above, to distinguish between being overactivated or underactivated.

When you are overactivated, you feel more of the "classic" anxiety symptoms. These are high heart rate, stress, fear, anxiety, restlessness and catastrophic thinking (the sympathetic nervous system). When you are over-activated over a long period of time, it wears us out and we begin to avoid more and more things.

When you are underactivated, on the other hand, you are much less in contact with yourself (body, emotions or surroundings). One can feel helpless, hopeless and lack energy. In other words, you have more classic depressive symptoms.


The body's "driving rules"

We would like to present another practical way to identify our own bodily signals. Some simple "driving rules" for when you are outside your tolerance window or not.

So if we call it being within the tolerance window "green light", the next two categories are "yellow" and "red". This body's traffic light tells us when we should regulate and take care of ourselves or when we are ready for new challenges.


The body's "yellow brake light"

For many, activation in the involuntary "smooth" muscles can be a sign that they are about to get out of their tolerance window.

This means that the body considers our inner conflicting emotions to be potentially overwhelming and that they should be suppressed. It can be said that it is a "precautionary" strategy based on childhood experiences.

This is when our parasympathetic nervous system (the "braking system") tries to regulate and override the sympathetic ("our" gas) and somatic (our self-controlled muscles) nervous system. The body responds in two opposing ways. This can sometimes be experienced as if we both "accelerate" and "brake" at the same time. In this way, in the worst case, we can "rush" like a car and become paralyzed when we really need to act.

The braking system, in the absence of activation, on the other hand, is perceived as "rest and digest". In other words, we relax and can digest the food in peace and quiet like a peaceful animal on the plain.

You can have both "green" and "yellow" body signals at the same time. That is, both feel tense (green) at the same time as you also have a bad stomach (yellow). The interesting thing here is that if the "brake system" is too effective, you will not necessarily experience it as being "outside" your tolerance window. Since the tension and unrest are no longer activated. On the other hand, one will not be so responsive to the external and internal challenges and may not feel in touch with oneself.

These "brake" or suppression symptoms are:


  1. Poor stomach such as loose stools, a lot of air / bloated stomach,
  2. One can bark or yawn often
  3. Dry mouth and bad breath
  4. Nausea
  5. Migraine
  6. Low energy and fatigue in the body

As mentioned, if you are struggling with these symptoms, it is of course important that you check with your GP if there are other medical reasons.

If you want to try to observe yourself, you can check if these symptoms vary depending on what kind of challenges you experience in everyday life. This is especially true of emotional and relational challenges. Could it be that you have a tendency to yawn or yawn when you have difficult personal questions? Could it be that you have a really dry mouth, need a lot of toilet and have loose stools when you are nervous? Could it be that your migraine gets stronger if you have to deal with people you have a difficult relationship with? Do you suddenly become very tired in the face of people or challenges?

If you can recognize the body signals - feel free to investigate which situations typically trigger them for you. It may then indicate that you have feelings that are suppressed. The suppressive mechanisms described above can, when they become too effective, lead to depressive symptoms and are something one can get help with in therapy.


The body's clear "red light" that one is "outside"

The most serious and unpleasant symptoms, that one is outside one's tolerance window, are referred to as cognitive perceptual disorder and can take the form of:


  1. Sudden dizziness
  2. Panic attack
  3. Suddenly poorer eyesight
  4. Hallucinations and "Flashback"
  5. Paranoidity and projection ie acquire other eg bad intentions
  6. Suddenly unable to think clearly or becomes completely "empty in the head"
  7. Dissociates, i.e. does not feel present in the body or space
  8. Acting / impulse failure

Another important sign that you are outside your tolerance window is what we call mentalisation failure. That is, have difficulty seeing themselves from the outside and others from the inside. This means that one can behave seemingly uncritically, ruthlessly and experience that others have evil intentions.

If you often struggle with the symptoms described above, you may want to consider therapy.


The body's emergency brake or lack of capacity?

One way to understand the tolerance window is that the brain has protection mechanisms that work to take care of us in the face of challenges that are too great.

If my unconscious conflicting emotions, thoughts or external challenges are considered by the brain to be too threatening, it will pull the "emergency brake". This was perhaps especially important in our childhood to avoid conflict or punishment, or on the savannah 10.000 years ago to avoid being expelled from the herd. Unfortunately, this emergency brake is not always appropriate in adulthood or in a modern society.

On the other side. There may be cases where you have a low tolerance for emotions because we did not get "trained" in our upbringing. We must therefore in adulthood train and practice in recognizing and sharing emotions despite the fact that it is anxious. Over time, however, in secure relationships, it will become less and less anxious and one may have more emotionally open and intimate relationships.

It is difficult to assess whether the bodily signals are an emergency brake or a sign that we have not trained our "emotional muscle". Maybe you know it yourself from reflecting on what "emotional culture" you have grown up in at home?


How can I expand my window of tolerance?

If relevant, it is important that you get help to regulate yourself so that you get within your tolerance window again. Furthermore, it can be important to get help to build a better tolerance and capacity for stress, anxiety and unconscious conflicting emotions. This can be done on your own or with the help of therapy.

The main principle in virtually all therapy is exposure to what is anxious. This can be external objects such as syringes, spiders, places and situations such as public transport or presentations. Or it can be close relationships or inner difficult and conflicting feelings or thoughts.

The exposure can be made so that you relate to the object, the situation, the feeling, the memory / trauma or the thought for as long as you can. Then you try to identify an intensity level that is ideally just below the threshold for your tolerance window. In this way, as when lifting weights or running, you can find the optimal activation that is neither too low nor overloading. This is how capacity can be increased.

How can one train and expand one's own emotional capacity?

In general, one can say that the first steps are to create increased awareness and identify:


  1. what physical signals your body gives you
  2. what situations it happens in
  3. what strategies are used to regulate anxiety
  4. what kind of "price" does this strategy have - for example, do you become lonely when you withdraw a lot?

Then you can start exploring, with a person you trust. You can share how you "really" feel, and be open about feelings, desires and needs.

On the other hand, it is not uncommon for various defenses or inappropriate security strategies to get in the way when doing so. Therefore, it is important to map these, meet them when they arrive and try to expose without their presence.

Some psychologists, such as those with ISTDP, have particularly good knowledge of how the tolerance window can be extended. We at Onlinepsykologene also have experience of helping people with such physical symptoms - so feel free to contact through if you want help.


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