Understanding Your Window of Tolerance
“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.
Calm Activation & Calm Deactivation keep us within the Optimal Zone:
Normally, when in this optimal zone, we are calm but alert and we are engaged in what we are doing. 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 arousal level to match the situation at hand. We can do this either with self-soothing actions (or by reaching out to soothing others) when we need to Deactivate our arousal, or via safe, healthy activities that stimulate us when we need to Activate our arousal.
Stress and Threat shrink your Window of Tolerance. When outside our Window of Tolerance – It is very difficult to take in new information. This is because these states of Hyperarousal and Hyperarousal are ancient physiological survival mechanisms that are shared across species throughout the entire animal kingdom.
For people who have experienced significant stress or trauma, 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 an individual shutting down (the freeze response) involuntarily when confronted with stress. As will be discussed, this is not the fault of the individual – it is simply how our brains become wired.
On the other hand, if we simply lack awareness (or have underdeveloped Activation / Deactivation skills), when we encounter threat or stress we may become too aroused (Hyperarousal) or we may completely shut down (Hyperarousal).
There is nothing wrong with us. It is simply how the brain has evolved to protect us. But this is evidence of a narrow Window of Tolerance
The extreme states of Hyper- and Hypo-arousal appear 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’. This ‘triggering’ can happen very easily with simple imagery, painful (or pleasant) memories and thoughts, or with threatening judgements or predictions. This is not our fault – it is how we have been shaped by evolution.
Therefore, we are not designed perfectly – Although our brains have immense capacities to protect us from danger, this comes at the cost of ‘false positives. These are ‘bugs’ (design flaws) and we need to learn to work with these design flaws, so that we do not get so easily triggered (you can learn more about this by reading the articles about the Threat System, listed at the bottom of this page).
Beyond the Threshold: Dissociation
Because we cannot be in extreme Hyperarousal for long periods – our brains have a threshold to how much distress and arousal we can tolerate. This can cause ‘Dissociation’. Equally, for some people, reaching this threshold can make the brain instantly ‘flip’ into Hyperarousal, where we can also hit a threshold and ‘dissociate’.
Dissociation is a huge topic, and one that deserves a separate article (see links below), but put simply: Dissociation occurs in response to extreme arousal states and/or extreme stress, as a protective mechanism to shield a person from further physical, psychological, or emotional harm.
Dissociation is a literal ‘disconnection’ between a person’s conscious thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, and their sense of ‘self’. Although some people who experience dissociation often report that they can act in ways that they do not remember, for others, they may not even be aware that they dissociate.
In essence, dissociation exists on a continuum. Dissociation is a normal brain process that everyone has the capacity to experience. For example, common examples of mild dissociation include daydreaming, highway hypnosis or “getting lost” in a book or movie, all of which involve “losing touch” with awareness of one’s immediate surroundings.
At a more moderate end of the continuum, as is often the case during (or following) an intense traumatic experience, dissociation is a natural defense mechanism of the brain, that can help a person tolerate what might otherwise be too difficult to bear. For some people, this may make it difficult to remember the details of a traumatic experience. Therefore, dissociation is essentially a way that our brains have evolved to escape mentally from fear, pain or horror.
At the more extreme end of the dissociative continuum (as is common with people who have insufficiently processed trauma memories), 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 simply a clever way that our brains have evolved to escape mentally 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 no new learning can be incorporated by the individual. This presents a significant problem for an individual 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 therapies such as EMDR Therapy.
Thus, if you are receiving EMDR Therapy to process trauma-related memories, it is very important that your therapist understands how to assess for and work with dissociation. Dissociation is related to the Window of Tolerance because it is another indication that you need to first work on expanding your Window of Tolerance (so you can stay in the present moment) before you can proceed to the processing of memories. This is for your own safety, and given that dissociation is a natural response to trauma, it could be argued that is negligent of a therapist to overlook assessing for dissociation when traumatic memories are present.
How to Increase your Window of Tolerance
It is important to emphasise 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.
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 Hyper-aroused 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.
Although different people prefer different approaches, we know that in general, calming imagery and soothing skills (such as Soothing Breathing, Safe Place or calming imagery) and grounding techniques (such as tuning into your 5 senses, mindfully) are generally what is required to bring a person out of Hyper-arousal back down into their Optimal Zone.
On the other hand, a commonly reported signal that you may be entering Hypo-arousal is that you may be feeling like withdrawing or like 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 Hypo-arousal. This is a signal that you need to intervene.
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 others when distressed may be challenging because others either may be emotionally unavailable or may be perceived as aversive or threatening. Regardless, it is helpful to have thought ahead about how you would like to respond should such a situation should it arise. In more extreme cases of Hypo-arousal, 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.
Examples of activities to decrease arousal and / or burn off stress include:
- Soothing breathing (deep and slow tummy breathing), discussed here
- Being Mindful in nature (I’ve summarised the research and offered suggestions for how to do this here)
- Writing things down (it’s cathartic and can help you process thoughts and feelings and gain perspective on what you’re experiencing)
- Gentle stretching or Yoga (Yin / Restorative Yoga is the most soothing, but any Yoga is better than none)
- Vigorous Exercise (it can give you an outlet and it continues to work after you have done it)
- Shaking or stomping out excess energy
- Warm water (warm bath or shower)
- Extreme cold water (like exercise, it works after you have done it)
- Throwing a therapy / yoga ball at a blank wall or outside wall (or rocks into a lake / 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
- Music (soothing and calming music and sounds, singing, chanting)
- Comforting food (eg hot chocolate or something chewy but smooth)
- Lying somewhere cozy with a weighted blanket
Examples of activities to increase arousal include:
- Anything that stimulates the senses and brings you into the present safely
- Movement / Vigorous exercise
- Smelling essential oils (smell is the fastest way to the thinking brain – where are strategies are!)
- Chewy crunchy food
- Jumping on a trampoline or mini trampoline
- Finger painting, drawing or art
- Playing Music
- Water play with a straw (blowing through the straw)
- Cold water
- Holding a piece of ice until it melts
- Listening to stimulating music
- Mindfulness of your 5 Senses
- Increasing your cognitive load – eg Look left, name 3 things, and list 3 facts (not judgments – facts) about those things. Then look right and do the same. You could repeat this and aim to find 3 new things each time.
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.
- “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 in Therapy – especially EMDR Therapy – and you are working with traumatic 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.
- How Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) impact on attachment, brain development and later lifestyle and health risk factors
- How childhood attachment experiences affect you and your relationships
- Your brain’s 3 Emotion Regulation Systems
- Getting Past Your Past with EMDR Therapy
- How you can get the most out of therapy
- A list of all articles that I have written