If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, you are not alone. Everyone has days, weeks or phases in life that are overwhelming and stressful. However, there are many ways that people cope with these times of overwhelm and not all of them are productive or healthy. Lack of appropriate management of stress can create many problems, impacting emotional and physical health, relationships, and work productivity.

Among the many styles of coping with stress and emotions, there are two extremes that are the most difficult when it comes to achieving a balance between emotional and rational experiencing. For some, there is an effort try to ignore emotions by suppressing them and attempting to power through the challenges only to feel like they are on the brink of exploding. This method of stress “management” can lead to depression, anxiety, angry outbursts, substance abuse or a variety of other unwanted feelings and behaviors.

At the other end of the spectrum, some allow themselves such free expression of feelings that they are not able to access any rational thinking, they spiral into destructive behaviors and oftentimes push people away or destroy relationships. When flooded with emotion, one becomes steeped in the part of the brain called the amygdala. This part of the brain is responsible for flight, fight or freeze and as a result, the frontal lobe, responsible for reasoning, logic and empathetic understanding is compromised. When in this mode, decisions are made that often lack in understanding of consequences and empathy for the way the behavior impacts others. This could lead to poor choices in regard to interactions with a spouse, friend or coworker and is often the impetus for pursuing counseling.

Somewhere in between these two extremes lies the key to healthy happy relationships, productivity and balance. During therapy sessions, this range of optimal processing is referred to as the “window of tolerance.”  The window of tolerance is what neuroscientist and psychologist, Dr. Daniel Siegel, refers to as the degree to “which various intensities of emotional arousal can be processed without disrupting the functioning of the system.” [1]  It is the range of emotional engagement that is ideal for working through issues in counseling sessions, and frankly is the only range in which the processing of those emotions will be effective. This range of optimal functioning applies outside of the counseling office as well. When at the extremes of the speWindow of tolerancectrum, and outside of the window of tolerance, the nervous system is either too heightened to allow us to access our reasoning or it is too disengaged to help us to stay alert, attuned and productive, furthering our inability to problem solve or feel healthy and happy. It is normal for one to fluctuate throughout the day within this optimal window, at times feeling more active, physically, emotionally or intellectually, and at other times feeling calmer, quieter and more subdued.

So how can someone regulate their emotions to stay in the window of tolerance? Deep breathing is one of the more widely known exercises to reduce emotional activation. The deep breaths circulate increased oxygen to the brain, and help to calm down the nervous system. When focusing on the breath work, a mindful state is engaged that brings focus to the present moment and out of the state of anxiety and worry, which are typically future focused. This component of the breath work further brings more balance to the nervous system creating improved emotion regulation.

Another tool to help manage heightened emotions is the remote control exercise. Imagine having a remote control that can be used to decrease the intensity of the emotion, decrease the volume of it, or the proximity of it.   It can be used to allow in only a drop or two of the emotion at a time, in order to maintain emotional balance. The remote control can shrink the emotions in order to fit them into a container that  can be accessed at will, when appropriate to work on those feelings in small doses. Tools such as these can create a sense of control that may otherwise be lacking during the onset of a flood of emotions.

Most importantly, maintaining a daily level of exercise can contribute dramatically to improved emotional balance. Regardless of where someone finds themselves on the spectrum of emotional engagement, exercise can bring a renewed equilibrium. Exercise increases endorphins, expels stress and tension and can provide the kind of release that can refresh perspective. In fact, research has shown that regular exercise can result in an overall improved quality of life. [2]

Taking a few simple, proactive, steps to manage emotions can have a huge impact on the way stress is alleviated and relationships are improved. By maintaining optimal balance in the window of tolerance, one can more effectively problem solve, tackle tasks and navigate relationships with an appropriate level of empathy and reasoning.

[1] Siegel, D. (1999).The Developing Mind. New York: The Guilford Press. p. 253.

[2] Craft, L., Perna, F. (2004). The benefits of exercise for the clinically depressed. Primary Care Companion. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 6(3): 104-111.