Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

A while back, I advised a doctoral student who was writing his dissertation on the neuropsychology of emotional resilience. Ben was researching things we can do to make our nervous systems more balanced and adaptable in the face of a challenge.

One day in early January, Ben walked into my office and announced this:

Ben started listing the daily hard things he’d planned for that week.

  • That day, he was going to muster the courage to ask out a girl he’s liked for a while.
  • Day after that: meditate for twelve minutes instead of ten.
  • Day after that: teach himself a new feature on his videography software.

You get the picture.

Honestly, I was a little surprised. I’d been expecting him to update me on his research, not announce his shiny new personal blueprint for self-actualization.

But then it dawned on me. Ben’s vow to do one hard thing every day was directly related to his research on the psychology of resilience.

The Window of Tolerance

Ben was researching something called the Window of Tolerance. Neuropsychologists use this concept to talk about the zone of optimal functioning for the human nervous system.

When we’re in our window of tolerance, our brain and body can handle whatever stressors come our way. We might feel uncomfortable, but we can manage and cope.

When I’m teaching this concept to kids, I call the window of tolerance the “okay zone.” Here’s the graphic I use.

When something becomes too challenging for us, our bodies and brains put us in one of the overstressed zones.

What I call the “volcano zone” is the kid-friendly term for autonomic hyperarousal. When we land here, we might feel jittery, tense, angry, worried, overwrought, scattered, or out of control.

And what I call the“iceberg zone” is the kid-friendly term for autonomic hypoarousal. When we land here, we might feel frozen, stuck, limp, exhausted, slow, numb, sleepy, or checked out.

A lot of us have a rather narrow window of tolerance. We easily slip into volcano or iceberg mode.

But Ben was digging into research showing that the human window of tolerance can be expanded. Our brain’s executive systems can be strengthened so  we can handle the upsets of life without blowing up (volcano) or shutting down (iceberg).


Hard But Not Derailing

Ben had found research showing that when we practice doing difficult things—things that require our focus, intentionality, effort, and persistence—we can actually grow gray matter and expand neural connectivity in our prefrontal cortex.  

When we say yes to things that are hard but not de-railing, our nervous systems become able to take on more. It becomes a lot easier to say, “Bring it.” “I got this.” “I can handle it.” “It’s a molehill, not a mountain.”

So today, as an act of self-care, go ahead and take on that thing that stretches you, that challenges you. Doing so will make you fit and ready for tomorrow’s trials and crises.

P.S. Ben ended up marrying that girl he challenged himself to ask out. Last I heard, they’d bought a condo in Brookline and were on track to happy ever after.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.