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Window of Tolerance Resources Curious Mind Psychology
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The recent spike in COVID cases in Melbourne and the uncertainty of this lockdown inspired me to create a resource for you on how our nervous system responds to chronic stress, and what we can do to support ourselves through times of adversity.

The window of tolerance refers to an optimal level of nervous system functioning where we are capable of tolerating and processing the ebbs and flows of emotional distress while thinking clearly, remaining present and being connected with ourselves and others. Stressful events and trauma narrow our window of tolerance, meaning we have little bandwidth for emotional distress, becoming quickly overwhelmed by our survival responses shutting down our prefrontal cortex (higher order thinking brain). Very broadly, these survival responses are designed to reduce harm by mobilising our resources via fight and flight (hyperarousal), or immobilising us into a state of extreme energy conservation via freeze and flop (hypoarousal). While these survival responses can be useful for violent threats to life, they are not always so useful for contemporary stressors, leaving us stuck in states such as shut down hopelessness or rage / panic characterised by reactive behaviour, distorted thinking and impaired decision making. Learning to recognise early cues of dysregulation (moving close to the upper limit or lower limit of your window of tolerance) and regulating up or down back into it will help you widen your window and become more resilient. Refer to our window of tolerance table to learn how to recognise and respond to signs of dysregulation.

To further care for yourself during these times of adversity lean on others around you for emotional connection (if you can!). Share as many deep belly laughs and cathartic tears with others as you are able. If you are struggling and need more help, see your GP for a referral to a mental health professional. These services listed below are free and can also offer interim support:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 46 36

Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800

Mensline: 1300 78 99 78

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

National Indigenous Critical Response Service: 1800 805 801

1800 Respect: 1800 737 732

QLife: 1800 250 015

National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline: 1800 250 015

For life threatening and dangerous situations: 000


Magdalena Mills

Principal Psychologist

Curious Mind Psychology

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Grounding and breathing exercises are a powerful coping mechanism to use when we are struggling with stress and intense emotions. They help us tune into the safety of the present moment, fostering a soothing connection between our mind, body and the here and now.

When our nervous system is soothed, we can think and perceive things with greater clarity, without the lens of danger that distorts reality when we are overwhelmed.

There is a lot of variety in these exercises, and everyone will have their own preferences. What is catnip to one person may be nails on a blackboard to another. So I encourage you stick with it and to have a play around to see what fits for you.

  1. Self Managed Relaxation Audio:

Rationale: to assist with softening tense muscles, breaking thought patterns that increase muscle tension and reducing stress, which inhibits the release of the inflammatory hormone cortisol -

2. Self Directed Breathing and Grounding Techniques

Rationale: The exercises below are to centre yourself and connect with your environment. Practice them throughout the day, especially any time you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and spiralling into a rumination cycle which escalates distress.

  1. Deflate and unwind

    1. Take a seat or lie down somewhere safe and comfortable, where you won’t be interrupted

    2. Take a deep breath in, and hold it

    3. Release it as slowly as you can

    4. As you exhale, allow your body to deflate like a balloon, melting tension and stiffness

    5. Repeat and consciously allow your muscles to unwind and become heavier with each exhalation

  1. Take Ten Breaths

    1. Take ten slow, deep breaths (in 4 seconds, out 6 seconds). Focus on breathing out as slowly as possible until the lungs are completely empty—and then allow them to refill by themselves.

    2. Notice the sensations of your lungs emptying. Notice them refilling. Notice your rib cage rising and falling. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your shoulders.

    3. See if you can let your thoughts come and go as if they’re just passing cars, driving past outside your house.

    4. Expand your awareness: simultaneously notice your breathing and your body. Then look around the room and notice what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel.

  1. Drop Anchor

    1. Plant your feet into the floor.

    2. Push them down—notice the floor beneath you, supporting you.

    3. Notice the muscle tension in your legs as you push your feet down.

    4. Notice your entire body—and the feeling of gravity flowing down through your head, spine, and legs into your feet.

    5. Now look around and notice what you can see and hear around you. Notice where you are and what you’re doing.

  1. Notice Five Things

    1. Pause for a moment

    2. Look around and notice five things that you can see.

    3. Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear.

    4. Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example, your watch against your wrist, your trousers against your legs, the air on your face, your feet upon the floor, your back against the chair).

    5. Finally, do all of the above simultaneously

I hope these techniques offer you some relief in this stressful and uncertain time of COVID-19. Feel welcome to reach out on our contact us page if you want to work on cultivating your soothing system.

Well wishes to all of you

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Magdalena Mills is a Psychology Board Endorsed Counselling Psychologist and the owner of Curious Mind Psychology. In this podcast, Magdalena speaks with Steven Eskaf, head coach of Max and Maxine's national body transformation challenge, about behaviour change and how to look after our mental health while we transform our bodies.

In this episode, you’ll discover • The number one reason why people can't change their behavior • The power of the beginners mind • What is mindfulness and how to use it • Why we use food as a reward • Why we use exercise as a punishment • The risks involved with following diets and body transformation programs • The warning signs of unhealthy training or nutrition behaviours • Psychological tools to support your training and nutrition

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