To Be Happier at Work, Find Your ‘Window of Tolerance’

Think of it as your mental home base

Ashley Abramson
Forge
Published in
4 min readOct 22, 2019

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Credit: Sara Miedema/Getty Images

OfOf all the things with undeserved bad raps in the workplace — storming out of meetings, LinkedIn, professional jealousy, getting your hopes up — stress is the most unfairly maligned. We’re constantly on the lookout for ways to beat it, prevent it, soothe it, banish it from our lives. And it’s true that too much can make us exhausted, burned out, and disillusioned. But the truth is — and hear me out — we actually do need some stress. Too little can leave us bored and unmotivated. They key is to find a balance between too much and not enough: the sweet spot where the brain functions best, or what psychologists call the “window of tolerance.”

It sounds a little woo-woo, but the term, coined by the psychiatrist Dan Siegel in his 1999 book The Developing Mind, actually has a neuroscientific basis. The window of tolerance is where the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning part of your brain, is most active and engaged. When you drift outside the window in either direction — keyed up and anxious or, on the flip side, sluggish and listless — your “thinking brain” powers down, which means you’ll have a harder time taking in new information.

Siegel, a trauma therapist, initially developed the concept to describe people’s sensitivity to triggers in clinical settings. If a person becomes agitated while talking about a past trauma, for example, they won’t be able to absorb what the therapist is saying. To ensure that the session is a useful one, the therapist might encourage deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to bring them back to their window.

But the window of tolerance isn’t limited to therapy, explains Natalie Dattilo, a psychiatrist and the director of psychology services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It’s also relevant to the workplace.

“From a productivity standpoint,” she says, “there’s a level of stimulation we prefer to function optimally in everyday life.” The window of tolerance is where you’re simultaneously calm and alert. It’s where you can think critically and creatively, learn and process new things, and draw connections between pieces of information — all necessary skills in pretty much any job.

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Ashley Abramson
Forge

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.