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  • Alainnah Knight

All About The Window of Tolerance

The "Window of Tolerance" is a metaphorical term discovered by Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist and neurobiologist, that describes the range of emotional arousal within which a person can function most effectively. This also sheds light on how individuals respond to trauma, stress, triggers, and emotions. This post explores the essence of the Window of Tolerance, its implications for mental health, and practical strategies for beginning to widen your window of tolerance.


What is the Window of Tolerance?


Window of tolerance infographic demonstrating the different experiences one might have in hypoarousal, hyperarousal, and their window of tolerance

The window of tolerance is a window that operates in the space betweeen hyper- and hypoarousal, demonstrating the dance one can do within their own emotional regulation before entering hyper- and hypo-arousal. Operating within this window allows us to use our prefrtontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain. This is when we are able to think clearly, engage in problem-solving, and process and cope with emotions effectively. However, when stressors surpass the upper limit or dip below the lower threshold, we may experience hyperarousal or hypoarousal, leading to emotional dysregulation.


Hyperarousal manifests when we are overwhelmed by intense emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, shame, overstimulation, etc. On the other end, hypoarousal involves a state of emotional shutdown or numbness, which is often caused from a trigger of trauma or chronic stress. The first step in beginning to widen your window of tolerance is to become aware of when you are no longer IN your window of tolerance! Let's talk about what to look for when you might be outside of your window of tolerance.


How Do I Know When I Am No Longer In My Window Of Tolerance?

If you have lived in a state of survival mode, you may not be quite sure what it even looks like to be in your window of tolerance. Being in a state of hypo- or hyperarousal may have become your normal. Although our window of tolerance may be very small, we all innately have a window of tolerance that can be increased with different practices, ultimately bringing ourselves and our nervous system out of a state of survival mode. When we begin to notice when our bodies are having these different experiences, we can begin to name what is happening and bring compassion to the moment.


What May Happen When I Am In Hyperarousal?

  • Racing thoughts

  • Impulsivity

  • Anger

  • Overwhelm

  • Hypervigilance

  • Fight or Flight

  • High Energy

  • Anxiety

  • Difficulty Concentrating

  • Unable to sit still


What May Happen When I Am In Hypoarousal?

  • Numb

  • Disconnected

  • Passive

  • No Feeling

  • Unable to think

  • Depressed

  • Shame

  • Frozen

  • Withdrawn


Strategies for Expanding Your Window of Tolerance

Although these strategies can help minimize the symptoms experienced in the moment, it is best to practice these daily to begin to build the familiarity, safety, and trust in these practices. Weights in the gym don't get any easier to lift, you just get stronger. Emotions and life doesn't quite get easier, we just become more equipped and resilient enough to take on those challenges.


Increasing Mindfulness

Engaging in mindfulness practices, like meditation and mindful breathing, can help us stay present and regulate our emotional arousal. This can also help us check in with any tension, bracing, or pain that we may have been experiencing in the body without being aware.


Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques such as holding an ice pack to our chest, focusing on our senses, bringing ourselves to the present moment in our physical bodies can help provide an anchor to regulate back to our window of tolerance.


Self and Well-Being

Prioritizing sufficient sleep, fueling our bodies with balanced foods, getting time outside, moving our bodies, and taking time for ourselves are all basic needs that can assist in regulating ourselves and staying within the window of tolerance. Having a lack of fuel in our system can send us into both hyper- and hypoarousal VERY easily, I am sure you have been hangry before! Check-in with your basic needs each day.


Therapy

Often times there are experiences and beliefs that we hold throughout our life that can keep us out of our window of tolerance, living in a state of survival mode. Exploring these experiences and beliefs, processing what has been held, and planting new inspiration for your future can be a wonderful way of getting to know yourself AND expanding your window of tolerance.


Lastly,

There are many ways to expand your window of tolerance and become aware of when you are no longer operating from the window of tolerance. The first step to expanding your window of tolerance is to begin acknowledging when you are no longer operating from your window of tolerance. Then we can notice our triggers, our responses, and begin to move the parts that are no longer protecting us.




References:


Ruth Buczynski, P. (2022, November 21). How to help your clients understand their window of tolerance. NICABM. https://www.nicabm.com/trauma-how-to-help-your-clients-understand-their-window-of-tolerance/


Wright, Annie. “What Is the Window of Tolerance, and Why Is It so Important?” PsychologyToday, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/making-the-whole-beautiful/202205/what-is-the-window-tolerance-and-why-is-it-so-important. Accessed 8 Dec. 2023.



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