Understanding Your Window of Tolerance


Overview

“Window of Tolerance” is a term originally coined by Dr. Dan Siegel commonly used to understand and describe normal brain/body reactions, especially following adversity.

It is also a term used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. 

Essentially, the size of our ‘window’ depends upon how much we are able to tolerate mild fluctuations in mood, energy levels, and the challenges and demands of life, whilst remaining in the Optimal Zone.

As seen in the diagram below, there is an Optimal Zone (or range) that we can function:




The Optimal Zone: Calm Activation & Deactivation

When we are within our Window of Tolerance we are essentially in the optimal zone (depicted above), our nervous systems (Sympathetic and Parasympathetic) are in a state of balance, which allows for adaptive responses to stress (i.e., Calm Activation depicted above) and a capacity for emotional regulation to balance this stress (i.e., Calm Deactivation, depicted above). In other words, we are calm but alert enough to be engaged in what we are doing without it being excessive, and we have ‘headroom’ to manage (and recover from) any challenges that may arise. Thus, when we are within our Window of Tolerance, we can engage in flexible thinking, effective communication and actions, and we are able to cope with daily stressors, build healthy relationships, and regulate our emotions constructively as required. 

Just like how a thermostat in an air-conditioner makes micro-adjustments to temperature to keep it within a comfortable range, staying within the Optimal range of our Window of Tolerance requires awareness and skills, so that we can attend to our needs and can regulate our arousal level to match the situation at hand. Ordinarily we can do this either with self-soothing actions (or by reaching out to trusted soothing others) when we need to Deactivate our arousal, or via safe, healthy activities that stimulate us when we need to Activate our arousal. 

However, the accumulation of Stress and/or feeling a state of Threat can shrink our Window of Tolerance. Once pushed outside our Window of Tolerance, it can become very difficult to take in new information. This is because these states of Hyper-arousal and Hypo-arousal are ancient physiological survival mechanisms that are shared across species throughout the entire animal kingdom. 

For people who have experienced significant stress (which may either be the result of a single incident, or ‘toxic stress’ resulting from the accumulation of triggering events), it is common for the brain to become ‘stuck’ in high levels of Activation or Deactivation – and this can either lead to an inability to stay calm (triggering the fight / flight response) or shutting down (the freeze response) involuntarily when confronted with stress.

In other words, a threat, or the accumulation of excessive stress, or traumatic experiences can disrupt an individual’s ability to stay within their Window of Tolerance, causing them to become overwhelmed or shut down.

For example, if someone becomes hyperaroused, they may exhibit symptoms of anxiety, anger, or panic. On the other hand, if they become hypoaroused, they might experience symptoms of depression, dissociation, or a sense of detachment. As will be discussed, this is not the fault of the individual – it is simply how our brain’s became wired (i.e., evolved to protect us). 

Understanding the Window of Tolerance is crucial in the context of therapy.  For instance, a major initial aim in preparation for trauma therapies (such as EMDR Therapy) is often to help individuals expand their Window of Tolerance by developing skills for emotional regulation and increasing their capacity to tolerate distress. This work commonly includes cultivating mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-compassion to maintain a balanced state, which increases our capacity to remain within our Window of Tolerance. By developing these skills, individuals can enhance their resilience, improve their emotional well-being, and navigate life’s challenges more effectively. These same skills are highly useful in the ‘treatment phase’ of trauma therapies and help to make an individual’s experience of healing, safer and more manageable.

Even for those of us who have not experienced significant trauma, if we simply lack awareness – or have underdeveloped self-regulation skills – we may also become either too aroused (hyper-arousal) or we may completely shut down (hypo-arousal) when we encounter threats or stress. (Note: We also may not have been taught good self-care strategies and so the actions we take to reduce stress may be inadvertently contributing to the problem.)

The Window of Tolerance represents the ideal middle ground between these extremes. When we are within our Window of Tolerance, we are in a state of balance, allowing for adaptive responses to stressors and emotional regulation.

If you identify with experiencing high levels of either hyper- or hypo-arousal, this is evidence of a narrow Window of Tolerance, and once we have a better understanding of this process there are things that we can do to help ourselves.  



Extremes: Hyper- and Hypo-arousal (in RED):



Because Hyper- and Hypo-arousal can help to protect us from danger or distress, these states have continued to stand the test of time (i.e., through evolution, we pass on the things that ensure our survival – think ‘survival of the fittest’). However, one unfortunate common consequence of our evolutionary past is that our human brains are easily triggered by ‘false positives’. For many of us, this ‘triggering’ can happen very easily with simple imagery, painful memories and thoughts, or by focusing on threatening judgements or predictions.

This is not our fault. Rather, it is simply how our brains have evolved to protect us. We did not ‘choose’ our emotional learning histories, or to be wired the way that we are.  Moreover, we are not designed perfectly. For example, although our brains have immense capacities to protect us from danger (by being able to think about and visualize all that could possibly go wrong), this comes at the cost of ‘false positives’. These are ‘bugs’ (or design flaws) and we need to learn to work with these design flaws, so that we do not get so easily triggered. This also forms part of the preparation work when building our Window of Tolerance (and you can learn more about this by reading about our brain’s Threat System, here).


 

 



Beyond the Threshold: Dissociation

Our brains have a threshold for how much distress and/or arousal we can tolerate. Being outside of our Window of Tolerance can lead to “Dissociation,” a literal disconnection or detachment from our conscious awareness (i.e., thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories) and our sense of ‘Self’. Dissociation is a spectrum of disconnection that occurs when distress overwhelms our coping abilities. 

In essence, dissociation exists on a continuum. We all dissociate to an extent some of the time. Mild dissociative experiences are common and can happen to almost anyone in response to boredom or stress or certain situations involving low or high arousal (or even tasks involving repetition). This is temporary and can sometimes be a helpful response that can allow our mind to take a break from repetitive or stressful situations or emotions. Examples of mild forms of dissociation may include daydreaming, ‘zoning out’, or getting lost in thought and ‘losing touch’ with an awareness of our immediate surroundings. This is the most common form of dissociation and it rarely interferes with our lives. 

Dissociation can also occur following an intense traumatic experience as a natural defense mechanism of the brain that can help us tolerate what might otherwise be too difficult to bear. For example, this may make it difficult to remember the details of a traumatic experience (which may serve as a protective mechanism). In this example, dissociation is essentially a way that our brains have evolved to ‘mentally escape’ from fear, pain or horror.   

Dissociation is a huge topic, and one that deserves a separate web-page article, but simply put: Extreme forms of dissociation occur in response to extreme arousal states (low arousal or high) and/or following extreme stress, as a protective mechanism to shield us from physical, psychological, or emotional harm. Because Dissociation is essentially a disconnection from our conscious awareness and our sense of ‘Self’, some may report that they can act in ways that they do not remember; yet, for others, they may not even be aware that they dissociate at all.

At the more extreme end of the dissociative continuum (as is common with people who have experienced Complex Trauma and / or significant childhood adverse events), dissociative states can literally become distinct personality configurations that are cut-off from an individual’s awareness. These personality ‘states’ or ‘parts’ may contain parts of the traumatic memory, or may represent the physical sensations, emotions or the narratives related to those events. Understandably, such shifts in consciousness may involve specific perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and emotional responses to people and situations that are not typically held by the individual. Again, these dissociative states or ‘parts’ are not our fault. Rather, they may have emerged in response to what happened to us, and are further examples of the clever ways that our brains can evolve to protect us (i.e., to help us mentally escape from fear, pain or horror).

Often, more extreme forms of dissociation are an indication that an individual is well outside of their Window of Tolerance. This means that it can be difficult for new learning to occur. This can be a problem for a person who is in a dissociated state whilst in a therapy session, because they may not have any recollection of information discussed. Equally, because dissociation can interfere with new learning, this can (for instance) make it very difficult to process memories in trauma therapies such as EMDR Therapy

Thus, if you are receiving a treatment for trauma, it is very important that your therapist understands how to assess for and work with dissociation (and dissociated ‘parts’ of Self). Dissociation indicates that before doing trauma work, you need to focus on PREPARATION skills to help you expand and stay within your Window of Tolerance. This is crucial for your comfort and safety before proceeding to the ‘treatment phase’ of trauma therapy. Given that dissociation is a natural trauma response, therapists should not overlook assessing for it and adequately preparing you by building resources to keep you within your Window of Tolerance during the therapy process. 

 



 

 

How to Increase Your Window of Tolerance

It is important to emphasize that we do not get to choose how ‘wide’ the Window of Tolerance we are born with is; different people are born with different brains and different capacities. Equally, we know that adverse events in early childhood and throughout our lives can shape our brains and can in turn affect our Window of Tolerance. Our attachment styles and early emotional learning also influence how our brains and Window of Tolerance develops.  

However, although many of the negative experiences that happen to us (especially the adverse experiences we experience in early childhood) are not our fault – it is our responsibility to learn about how we can best help ourselves, because the ‘wider’ we can expand our Window of Tolerance, the more resilient we can learn to become in the face of life’s challenges.

If you would like to increase your Window of Tolerance, it will first helpful to begin to become aware of the ‘cues’ or the ‘signals’ that you are becoming either Hyper-, or Hypo- aroused. Although everyone is different, it is common for people to report that when they are becoming hyperaroused that they find it increasingly difficult to stay calm. You could use this as a signal that you are coming close to the upper edge of your Window of Tolerance and that you need to intervene. 

Another way to think about tailoring your approach to your needs comes from what we know about STRESS. Take a look at the image of the Yerkes-Dodson Law depicted in the diagram below: 

 

As seen in the image above, when we are LOW in stress (eg hypo-arousal) we are going to find it difficult to ‘stay present’ and perform in ways that are optimal. Equally, when we are HIGH in stress (eg hyper-arousal) we are going to find it difficult to perform at our best. What we need is ‘just the right amount’ of stress. 

 

In other words, you need to ‘know where you are at, where you need to be, and what you need to do to get yourself there’.  Although different people prefer different approaches, we know that in general, calming imagery and soothing skills (such as Soothing Breathing, creating a ‘Calm Place’, and other calming imagery) and grounding techniques (such as tuning into your 5 Senses, mindful noticing) are generally what is required to bring a person out of hyperarousal back into their Optimal Zone.

On the other hand, a commonly reported signal that you may be entering hypoarousal is that you may be feeling like withdrawing or that you are ‘shutting down’. If this is the case, use this as a ‘signal’ that you are coming close to the edge of your Window of Tolerance and are moving towards the state of hypoarousal.  This is a signal that you need to intervene. Grounding skills can be important use when outside of your Window of Tolerance. 

“Different-strokes for different folks” applies here though, because while for some people connecting with others can be a useful way to counter their desire to withdraw, for others (particularly those with significant interpersonal traumas) connecting with other people when distressed may be hugely challenging because other people may be either emotionally unavailable / unsupportive in the past or may be perceived as aversive or threatening (which could increase distress).  In more extreme cases of hypoarousal, simple gentle but stimulating activities with a focus on grounding your experience in the present moments (i.e., techniques to help orient you to time / place) may be required. Regardless, it is helpful to plan ahead and to have multiple options for how you would like to be able respond (and to have practiced using them) should such a situation should it arise.

 

 

 



Self-Care Strategies for Working with
Hyperarousal 

Working with our Parasympathetic Nervous System is hugely important when experiencing hyperarousal or are feeling are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or disconnected. (Remember: We want to engage in soothing activities that decrease our arousal because hyperarousal is caused by an excess of Sympathetic Nervous System activity, which I discuss further here.) Therefore, any activity that involves grounding, soothing, or containment will be of benefit. Because we each respond differently to (and have differing preferences to be soothed by) different kinds of activities, it is important to develop a personal toolkit of skills and practice them regularly so that you know you can lean on them when needed. Some examples may include:  

  • Soothing breathing (deep and slow tummy breathing, which I discuss in great detail here)
  • Being Mindful in nature (I have summarized the research and offered suggestions for how to do this here)
  • Writing things down (this can be cathartic because it can help you externalize thoughts and feelings, which can be validating and this process can help you gain perspective on what you’re experiencing; Pennebaker’s Expressive Writing Paradigm is a good example of a a structured Therapeutic Writing activity now has decades or research support and it is free. But any kind of writing that you find helpful will suffice)
  • Gentle stretching or Yoga (Yin / Restorative Yoga is the most soothing, but any form of working with your body in a gentle and helpful way is better than none) 
  • Shaking, Stomping, or Vigorous Exercise (this can provide an outlet to burn off excess energy and we know the benefits of exercise continue to work for us long even after we have finished doing it)
  • Warm water (warm bath or shower)
  • Extreme cold water (when done safely, like exercise, the benefits of ice-baths are well-documented and keep working for you well after you have done this activity)
  • Throwing (eg, a therapy / yoga ball at a blank or outside wall, or rocks into a lake / out into the ocean)
  • Something rhythmical (such as dancing, rocking on a hammock, a swing, or gently bouncing on a trampoline) 
  • Rolling on a foam roller or yoga ball (to loosen areas of muscular tension and bring you back into the present moment using your body)
  • Music (soothing and calming music and sounds, singing, chanting, playing an instrument)
  • Comforting food (eg hot chocolate or something chewy but smooth)
  • Lying somewhere cozy with a weighted blanket (you could combine this with soothing music, or high quality recordings of nature sounds mentioned towards the bottom of this page)

 

 

Self-Care Strategies for Working with Hypoarousal 

Below are some self-care strategies to help you increase your arousal and engagement in the present moment. Any activities that involve a helpful stimulation of your body / mind, or that may include grounding you in the present moment safely are likely to be useful here. Remember, because we each respond differently to different kinds of activities (and have differing preferences for stimulation), it is important to develop a personal toolkit of useful actions that you enjoy and to practice using these skills regularly so that you know that you can lean on them when you most need them. Essentially, anything that stimulates the prefrontal cortex and/or brings you into the present moment safely is what we are looking for here. Some examples may include:  

  • Sensory Stimulation (anything that you can do Mindfully while engaging your 5 Senses could be helpful; Anything that stimulates the prefrontal cortex and/or brings you into the present moment safely is what we are looking for)
  • Movement / Vigorous exercise (choose something intense, simulating or that challenges your co-ordination in someway, for instance a hand – or head – stand against a wall, or try walking backwards for 3 mins on your hands and feet with your belly facing upwards)
  • Body Scan: Start by focusing your attention on your toes and gradually move upward, paying attention to each part of your body. Notice any sensations, tension, or relaxation in each area. (This exercise helps you connect with your physical sensations and brings you into the present moment.)
  • Balancing or Dancing (or any physical activity that increases your heart rate and gets your body moving; something that is challenging will also bring you into the present moment because it demands your attention)
  • Smelling essential oils (smell is the fastest way to the thinking brain)
  • Chewy crunchy food (the sounds and sensations can be a source of stimulation)
  • Jumping on a trampoline or mini trampoline
  • Finger painting, drawing or art (provides and opportunity for tactile stimulation, and present-moment decision-making and problem-solving)
  • Listening to Stimulating Music (or playing an instrument)
  • Water play with a straw (blowing through the straw)
  • Cold water Immersion (the invigorating positive effects of cold water and ice baths are now well-known) 
  • Holding a piece of ice until it melts (this can be quite challenging and aims to help you return to the present moment)
  • Increasing your cognitive load (eg Look left, name 3 things, and list 3 facts – not judgments, but facts – about those things. Then look right and do the same. You could repeat this and aim to find 3 new things each time.) 
  • Alternatively, you could make use of “5-4-3-2-1” (Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This exercise engages your senses and helps redirect your attention to your immediate environment.)
  • Contact a friend and focus on meaningful connection (even though this may be the opposite of what our nervous system is pulling us to do)

For certain people, such as those with a narrow Window of Tolerance (which is understandably common in people who have experienced significant traumas or stress), there can be almost zero warning that they are entering either Hyper- or Hypo-arousal. This is not their fault. Rather, it is the result of the trauma, and how trauma affects our brains – it makes the brain over-protective to prevent any further harm.

However, unfortunately, this can sometimes take people by surprise and they can lash out at others (‘attack’) or themselves, or can completely shut-down (‘withdraw’), and this may leave a person feeling ashamed, or powerless and out of control of their emotions. If this is the case (if this is you, or someone that you care about), please understand that self-help techniques alone will likely only be of limited use. When this is the case, consulting with an experienced, trauma-informed clinical psychologist is highly recommended.  

If you are receiving Therapy – especially EMDR Therapy – and you are working with trauma or painful memories, it is your Therapists’ upmost ethical and professional responsibility to determine what your Window of Tolerance is, and to work safely with you to help teach you what you do not know so that you can develop the skills that you missed learning. That way, the work that you do together will be as efficient and effective as it can be.

 

Summary:

  • “Window of Tolerance” is a term used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. 
  • When in the optimal zone, we are calm but alert and we can be engaged in what we are doing.
  • When we are outside our Window of Tolerance, either we are in Hyper- or Hypo- arousal and we need to take specific steps to bring ourselves back into the Optimal Zone.
  • Much like how the thermostat in an air-conditioner makes micro-adjustments to temperature to keep it within a comfortable range, staying within the optimal range of our Window of Tolerance requires the awareness and skills to attend to our needs and to regulate out arousal level to match the situation at hand
  • We can do this either with self-soothing when we need to Deactivate our arousal, or via activities that stimulate us when we need to Activate our arousal
  • The size of our ‘window’ depends upon how much we are able to tolerate fluctuations in mood, energy levels, and the challenges and demands of life, whilst remaining in the Optimal Zone.
  • We do not get to choose how ‘wide’ the Window of Tolerance we are born with is – different people are born with different brains and different capacities.
  • Adverse events in early childhood and throughout our lives can shape our brains and can in turn affect our Window of Tolerance.
  • Although many of the negative experiences that happen to us (especially the adverse experiences we experience in early childhood) are not our fault – it is our responsibility to learn about how we can best help ourselves, because the ‘wider’ we can make our Window of Tolerance, the more resilient we can learn to become in the face of life’s challenges.
  • We can increase our Window of Tolerance by practicing mindfulness, building social connections, improving lifestyle factors known to reduce stress (e.g. healthy nutrition, regular exercise, and getting adequately restful sleep) and by seeking out mental health support
  • If you are engaged in Therapy – especially EMDR Therapy – and you have a history of trauma, it is your Therapists’ upmost ethical and professional responsibility to determine your Window of Tolerance before embarking on reprocessing traumatic memories or material, to ensure the experience of therapy can remain safe and beneficial for you.
  • If you are a therapist working with trauma, in addition to having completed specialized training (and receiving ongoing supervision), you should assess for the presence (and severity) of Dissociation, and focus on expanding a client’s Window of Tolerance (i.e., ‘preparation’) before proceeding to trauma processing to prevent further re-traumatization and to allow integration of the therapy (this is one of your ethical responsibilities, especially when doing trauma-therapy). 



Further Resources:

About Me: 

Dr Andreas Comninos, PhD Clinical Psychologist

I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist and EMDR Accredited Practitioner with over 15 years of psychotherapy experience. Whether you are seeking an assessment and diagnosis, or are searching for integrative research-backed ways to help you heal past wounds, break reactive-patterns and achieve long-lasting change, my aim is to provide a safe space for you to feel seen, understood, and empowered so you can make meaningful progress on your healing journey.


To learn more and to get in touch, please:

CONTACT ME

I endeavor to reply to all enquiries within 24 hrs.

About Me: 

Dr Andreas Comninos, PhD Clinical Psychologist

 

I am a PhD Clinical Psychologist and EMDR Accredited Practitioner with over 15 years of psychotherapy experience. Whether you are seeking an assessment and diagnosis, or are searching for integrative research-backed ways to help you heal past wounds, break reactive-patterns and achieve long-lasting change, my aim is to provide a safe space for you to feel seen, understood, and empowered so you can make meaningful progress on your healing journey.

To learn more and to get in touch, please:

CONTACT ME

I endeavor to reply to all enquiries within 24 hrs.