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  • Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Ever get that feeling that if one more thing goes wrong you're going to either explode or burst in to tears? That's a sign your window of tolerance needs some help.


#WindowOfTolerance is a now a widely used term first introduced by Dr. Dan Siegel, a UCLA psychiatry professor, author, psychotherapist and all around pretty amazing guy. The idea being that we all have a window, or a zone, that we can operate within at an effective level, we can respond to challenges, process information, evaluate situations and manage everyday life. When we are operating outside of our window of tolerance - usually during times of stress, tiredness, hangryness etc. then we find ourselves becoming more easily overwhelmed and this can cause either #hyperarousal (panic, anger, anxiety) or #hypoarousal (dissociation, numbness, freeze response). In both states we are unable to access our “good brain” our prefrontal cortex and so we can’t see logic or reason or even find language to express what we feel.


Window of tolerance explanation with what happens inside and outside of the window.

Some folks may just have a smaller window of tolerance. Adverse experiences in life and trauma can shrink our window of tolerance because our brain is trying a little harder to keep us safe and so wants us to tolerate less so that we are ready much quicker to go into fight, flight or freeze. A smaller window of tolerance means that we will be more reactive to real, or what is quite often, perceived danger - a trigger, or stimuli that has reminded our brain of a traumatic incident or painful memory from perhaps many years ago and our brain desperately tries to protect us from it happening again.


The good news is by being aware of your own (and maybe your partner’s) window of tolerance, we can manage it a little more effectively.

How big is my window today?

By checking in with yourself:“how big’s my window today?"you can tell if it might be time to take a break, do an activity that will help to regulate your nervous system and widen your window. Techniques such as grounding exercises, breathing exercises, self soothing, music, petting your dog, whatever it is that can help us regain calm. Finding out your own ways of self-regulating is really important, especially for folks who have experienced trauma and if it’s difficult for you to figure this out, try a few different things, see what fits and if you go to counselling - your therapist can help!


If you have any questions I would love to hear from you: info@helenwhitehead.ca

For today, check in with your own window of tolerance and see how wide yours is :)

Helen Whitehead

  • Helen Whitehead M.C., R.C.C.

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

So you've made the decision that whatever it is you're struggling with, you need a little help. You've talked to friends about their #counselling experiences, you've figured out your RCC from your RPC and your CCC from your MSW and you've decided that a Registered Clinical Counsellor is the best choice for you. If you have extended health, you've double checked to make sure that they cover RCCs (most do) and you've checked out the online directories (such as www.psychologytoday.com) and yes! You've decided on a #counsellor!


Many counsellors (me included) offer a free consultation and this gives you a chance to speak to your possible therapist and ask them any questions and learn a little bit more about how they work. This can be really helpful to do and it also makes the first session a little less daunting.


What happens before that first session depends on whether you are meeting online or in-person and depends on your counsellor. They may ask you to fill out an intake form with a few general questions and they may ask you to read and sign their informed consent form, or, if you are meeting in person, they may do this then. The informed consent form should explain appointment rates, cancellation fees, confidentiality, ways to contact your counsellor and plenty of other not super exciting and yet incredibly important information. At whatever stage you read the informed consent - this is your chance to ask questions about anything at all you are unsure about.

Counselling session

First Session Jitters


Meeting a new person can be anxiety inducing for some people and meeting a new therapist can be especially scary. This might be the person you tell your life story to, this might be the person you trust with a secret, this might be the person who can help you get through life. It's a big deal!

Here's a secret. We get nervous too.

And trust me, we get it, we feel it too. It's a responsibility that counsellors take very seriously and we hope that you feel comfortable and safe with us but we also appreciate that for some people this can take many sessions to achieve. And that's OK!


The first session is a chance for you to see if this counsellor might be the one for you to work with, it's a chance for you to tell the counsellor what you're struggling with and what would have to happen for you to know that counselling was a good idea. Your #therapist will have some questions for you as they try to get a sense of your situation and you get to decide how much detail you give them. We understand it can take time to feel comfortable and often information will come out naturally over the course of your sessions together, we don't have to know your life story to be able to help you, but if you want someone to hear it, we're there for that too. A couple of tips would be to take a notebook with you, as it can be helpful to jot things down rather than trying to remember everything and also take a drink with you as at the moment many counselling offices, mine included, are not providing any water/refreshments.


Whats Different with Online Therapy?


Of course many counsellors and clients are having #onlinetherapy sessions now due to #Covid19 and for many people these work really well. I work with a number of clients who initially were quite resistant to the idea of a virtual session but now tell me they would never go back to in-person. Some of the benefits of online counselling include not having to get transit or drive and worry about being late or parking; also for some people, talking about difficult topics can feel a little less overwhelming when it's from the comfort of your own home with a cat on your knee.


A dog dressed up sitting at a computer as an online therapist

Tech issues do happen, so it's a good idea to check whatever platform your counsellor uses and make sure you have good wifi, if not then get an ethernet cable to plug right into the router to ensure a solid signal. Non-technical interruptions can (and do) happen too. If I'm working from my home office, I always warn my clients that there may be a meow from my cat or a bark from my dog and of course that Amazon delivery would choose to arrive right in the middle of a session! These little moments don't affect the #therapy session negatively, sometimes it's the opposite, they create a shared moment of laughter or awkwardness and perhaps having a little window into your therapist's life can make them seem a little more human :)


Confidentiality is another factor when thinking about online therapy. When you are in my office I can provide assurance that no-one can hear our conversation, but I don't know who you live with or who lives next door so make sure that you can find somewhere private to hold the session and think about using earplugs so at least only half the conversation is out loud. The best advice I can give you is to make yourself as comfortable as you can, have a water or hot drink with you, some paper to scribble down any notes or just to doodle if it helps you relax and always take a few minutes before the session to ground yourself, take some deep breaths and set your intention for the session. Oh and tissues...how could I forget tissues.


Final Words


Whether you choose online therapy or in-person, whether it's your first session or your 100th, getting counselling sends a very positive message to yourself. I care about me.

Thank you for reading this post and if you are considering counselling for the first time please get in touch if you have any questions, I would love to hear from you.


Helen Whitehead.

Helen Whitehead Counselling

North Vancouver, B.C.

Email: info@helenwhitehead.ca

Instagram: @hwcounselling

Web: www.helenwhitehead.ca








thoughts from a north vancouver counsellor