Have you ever wondered why some people can handle stress without losing control of their emotions but you, on the other hand, can't? In the field of psychology, there is a concept that explains these individual differences, and it is called the window of tolerance.
The essence of the window of tolerance metaphor is not really new to most people. We all know that some people can tolerate stressful situations without dysfunctional reactions, whereas others can't. However, it is still worth explaining, specifically in terms of how it affects our brain and body and how it is related to trauma and mental health. But knowing what the window of tolerance is doesn't suffice. We also need to know how we can improve this window to our advantage. With that said, this discussion explores the concept in-depth. In addition, the ways in which we can better ourselves and others upon knowing what the window of tolerance means will be discussed.
What Is the Window of Tolerance?
An idea proposed by Dr. Dan Siegel, the window of tolerance refers to the zone of arousal where an individual operates at their optimal state. That is, when people are within their window of tolerance, they are in a psychological space that allows them to perform daily activities without their emotions and thoughts overwhelming or interfering with their functioning. According to the window of tolerance theory, when you are within this zone, your brain is working effectively in that it is smoothly processing events, thoughts, and emotions. However, moving above or below your window of tolerance results in unbearable emotions and defensive behaviors.
An allusion to the literal windows we see in homes and buildings, this window of tolerance has an upper boundary and a lower boundary. Going over these boundaries means operating within either of the two states of arousal, which are the following [*]:
Hyperarousal: The state of hyperarousal features the general feeling of being overwhelmed. From the word itself, you can safely infer that a person in this state is excessively stimulated, and not necessarily in a good way. In other words, they may experience anxiety, panic, anger, racing thoughts, or hypervigilance, to name a few. In neurobiological terms, hyperarousal is characterized by the fight-or-flight response.
Hypoarousal: On the other hand, hypoarousal is considered a state beyond the window of tolerance where affected individuals may feel empty, numb, detached, or even paralyzed. Contrary to the hyperarousal’s fight-or-flight response, hypoarousal is distinguished by the freeze response.
It is important to note that the window of tolerance may vary from person to person in terms of size. Individuals with a narrow window tend to struggle with their emotions, whereas those with a wide window can function effectively despite experiencing negative emotions or situations. Moreover, people can move from one state of arousal to another. Thus, one person may be overstimulated one day and understimulated the next.
How Trauma Can Affect Your Window of Tolerance
Sometimes, traumatic events can happen, resulting in feelings of fear, panic, and distress. These emotions can impact where we are in our window of tolerance. At this point, the relationship between trauma and the window of tolerance may seem vague, but the window of tolerance theory has an explanation to account for such a relationship.
According to Siegel’s theory, intense stress or trauma may cause a person to go beyond their window of tolerance, manifesting itself into defensive bodily reactions. In other words, the body experiences dysregulation following trauma and goes into a fight-or-flight response. The fight response comes in several forms, including the following:
- Attacking or confronting
- Becoming angry or irritable
- Hurling insults
- Engaging in blame
- Difficulty in trusting other people
Meanwhile, the flight response also manifests in different ways, as follows:
- Running away or hiding
- Being in denial
- Experiencing anxiety
- Sabotaging oneself
However, there is also another response: freeze. Freezing occurs when fighting or fleeing is impossible to do in that moment. The freeze response can look like the following:
- Surrendering or becoming compliant
- Feeling empty or numb, like you are shutting down
- Experiencing detachment
- Rationalizing or justifying behaviors or situations
Not only do trauma survivors take on any of these behaviors, but they may also experience their window of tolerance narrowing to the point of inflexibility. But what does a narrow window of tolerance look like? One answer is that survivors of trauma may easily lose control or break down from even minor negative stressors. Alternatively, they may be more likely to experience psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression.
In addition to these difficulties, trauma survivors may suffer from symptoms depending on their predominant state of arousal. For example, individuals who are predominantly in a state of hyperarousal may experience the symptoms that are associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as the following:
- Experiencing flashbacks
- Suffering from nightmares
- Feeling as though reality or the outside world is not real
Meanwhile, if a trauma survivor constantly finds themselves in a state of hypoarousal, they may suffer from the following symptoms:
- Difficulty remembering certain events or pieces of information
- Spacing out and feeling disconnected
- Feeling unreal, as though you are watching yourself from the eyes of a third-party observer
Unfortunately, trauma survivors develop symptoms depending on the time the traumatic event occurred as well. For instance, when survivors experience childhood trauma or suffer from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), they shift to either state of arousal not only as a result of their past experiences but also because they have learned to anticipate these kinds of events [*].
How to Recognize Your Window of Tolerance
Think about it this way: The window of tolerance is an emotional threshold, in which moving past its boundaries can cause you to function ineffectively. It follows then that recognizing your window of tolerance can help you improve the scope of your functioning by allowing you to be aware of the things that make you step outside your threshold. Thus, the first step in recognizing your window of tolerance is to notice your emotions and triggers [*]. The following are some questions you can ask yourself to become more self-aware:
- How do you feel right now?
- Who or what keeps you feeling this way?
- What causes you to go beyond the upper boundary (hyperarousal) of your window of tolerance?
- What causes you to go beyond the lower boundary (hypoarousal) of your window of tolerance?
- When you are led to step outside of your window of tolerance, what do you feel? What does your body feel?
- How do you usually cope when you are past the limits of this window?
After noticing your emotions and triggers, the next step is to identify the symptoms that you experience. Keep in mind that symptoms vary according to the state of arousal you are in, so when identifying your symptoms, think about whether they can be classified as hyperarousal symptoms or hypoarousal symptoms.
The third step is to identify the level of distress you are experiencing. Now that you have a list of identified symptoms, you can rate each one according to how much it is causing you distress. To do this, you can rate each symptom from 1 to 5, with 1 meaning least severe and 5 meaning extremely severe.
The last step is to identify the cause of your symptoms and distress. What happened to make you feel or behave this way? What led you to fight, flee, or freeze?
With regard to cultivating self-awareness, one final thing to take note of is that these window of tolerance exercises do not apply exclusively to moments wherein you have stepped outside of your optimal zone of arousal. So when doing these exercises, reflect on the things and events that make you feel present and stable as well.
What Happens When I Go Outside My Window of Tolerance?
We have talked about how trauma affects your window of tolerance, but overall, many things can happen when you move outside of this zone, regardless of the kind of stressful event you are experiencing. Primarily, staying outside your window of tolerance affects your brain. There are two main brain structures that become affected, as follows [*]:
Amygdala: This area of the brain is primarily associated with emotion and survival. When a stressful event happens, the amygdala tries to determine whether there is a threat. If it identifies a threat, it causes us to respond by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. However, the amygdala becomes overactive whenever shifting into a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal becomes too frequent for the individual. It can also go on overdrive when it perceives a threat even though the individual is not faced with actual danger.
Prefrontal cortex: When the amygdala becomes overactive, the prefrontal cortex, which is the rational part of the brain, is also affected. It experiences dysfunction and stops working at its optimal state, resulting in the amygdala taking over with its emphasis on sensing emotions and detecting threat.
When going outside of the window of tolerance, shifting to either state of arousal is dependent on what event happened and how your brain interprets the event. If the situation that occurred heightens your arousal, then you may move closer to the upper boundary of your window of tolerance (hyperarousal). This causes you to become emotionally reactive, and such reactivity may lead to instability in different areas of your life. However, if a situation causes you to feel too little, you move closer to the lower boundary of your window of tolerance (hypoarousal). In this state, you may feel lethargic, demotivated, zoned out, and depressed. Similar to hyperarousal, hypoarousal is a state of feeling overwhelmed, except the response to this feeling is more on shutting down. Thus, when you begin to feel disconnected from your emotions, retreating from other people and the world is likely.
How to Help Someone Come Back Into Their Window of Tolerance
Staying within one's window of tolerance can be easy for some people, maybe even for you, but there are others who struggle with operating within their own window. It is even possible that you may know someone close to you who often moves beyond their window and struggles with unbearable emotions every day. So how can you help them return to their window of tolerance? The following are steps that you can take when helping someone who is often outside of their window [*].
1. Practice self-awareness
First, you need to be aware of whether or not you are in your window of tolerance. You may be wondering, though, "Why do I need to be self-aware? This is about the person I'm trying to help, not me." However, it's important to become self-aware of where you are at in your window of tolerance because you will not be able to help others if you have not helped yourself first. Even if you tried, your efforts to help them may not be effective because you yourself are not in your optimal state of functioning. Thus, if you find that you are in a state of either hypoarousal or hyperarousal, then try to work on staying within your window of tolerance first.
2. Look for underlying factors that may narrow the person's window of tolerance
Next, try to identify the circumstances that make it easy for them to move beyond their window of tolerance. Is the person you are trying to help sleeping and eating well? Are they suffering from a mental illness or a physical condition? Is their home life unstable or dysfunctional? Or are they using substances such as drugs and alcohol? Remember that such stressors increase the odds of having a narrow window of tolerance.
3. Identify the person's triggers
To understand a person's triggers for moving outside of their window, you can use the ABC model, which, simply put, identifies the antecedent of the behavior (A), the behavior (B), and the consequence of the behavior (C). For example, if a person is abusing substances (B), the antecedent would be them losing their job (A), and this substance abuse may lead to alienation from their friends and family (C). Using the ABC model can help you understand why the person is behaving the way they are and which methods you should use in helping them come back into their window of tolerance.
4. Apply the strategies that will be most effective for the individual
This fourth step allows you to apply the knowledge you have gained in the previous steps when helping a person come back into their window of tolerance. However, there are two things to keep in mind. First, understand that particular strategies that work for one person may not work for another. Second, use your prior knowledge of the person you are helping to your advantage by determining the state of arousal that they frequently shift to. Using the previous example of substance abuse, if you have discerned that this is a coping mechanism for them to feel something, then perhaps they are in a state of hypoarousal.
With that said, the following are some strategies for helping someone decrease their hyperarousal:
- Encouraging them to practice diaphragmatic breathing (i.e., placing your hand on your stomach and feeling its movement when breathing)
- Teaching them the "drinking from a straw" technique (i.e., breathing as if drinking from a straw)
- Joining them in meditation or yoga
- Allowing them to release their anger in a healthy or constructive way
As for managing hypoarousal, the following are tips you can use in helping someone come back into their window of tolerance:
- Increasing your speech prosody to stimulate them
- Joking around with them (appropriately, depending on the context)
- Encouraging them to move around (e.g., standing up, walking, switching seats)
- Asking them to describe three things (e.g., "What are three things in this room that you find interesting?")
- Guiding them in doing breathwork
- Asking scaling questions (e.g., "From a scale of 1-10, how do you feel?") regarding the intensity of their symptoms
- Anchoring them to the present (e.g., "You're in a classroom. Today is a Wednesday. You're with me, and you're okay.")
As said earlier, it is important that you are within your window of tolerance before you begin to help others. However, keep in mind that it is normal to move past the boundaries of your window from time to time. It just becomes more concerning when you are constantly staying outside of your window of tolerance.
How Can I Stay Within My Window of Tolerance?
Our window of tolerance does not live in a vacuum. That is, there are factors influencing how narrow or wide it is, including the following [*]:
- Experiences from childhood
- Social support
- Environmental factors
- Ability to regulate one's emotions
- Traumatic experiences
- Mental illnesses, disabilities, and physical conditions
- Sleep patterns
- Use of substances
Once you understand which factors impact the width of your window, then you will know which window of tolerance exercises to practice on yourself. Some of these exercises are the following:
- Strike a balance in your life to minimize stress.
- Notice the triggers that move you into a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal, and then try to fulfill your needs so that you do not respond to those triggers by stepping outside your window anymore.
- Practice self-regulation skills for moving back from hyperarousal, such as the following:
- Engaging in breathwork
- Exercising or doing any vigorous physical activity
- Listening to calming music that will help you relax
- Using stress balls, weighted blankets, and rocking chairs to regulate your senses
- Practicing mindfulness in nature
- Taking a warm bath or a cold shower
- Engaging in activities involving rhythm, such as dancing
- Eating your comfort food
- Practice self-regulation skills for moving back from hypoarousal, such as the following:
- Stimulating your sense of smell, touch, taste, and so on
- Exercising or doing any physical movement
- Listening to upbeat music
- Taking a nap to reset your brain
- Smelling scents such as essential oils
- Making art by painting or drawing
- Splashing cold water on yourself
- Holding an ice cube for as long as you can
- Practicing grounding exercises (e.g., name three things on your left and enumerate three things you know about those things, and then doing the same for things on your right)
Expanding Your Window of Tolerance
Sometimes, being able to stay in your window of tolerance is not enough. Maybe you are shifting into states of hyperarousal and hypoarousal so often because your window of tolerance is just really narrow.
If that is the case, then there are still ways to improve your window of tolerance. Your window can widen if you decide that you want it to be wider. With that said, the following are some window of tolerance exercises to help you expand your window.
To practice mindfulness, there are four things that you need to do, which are the following:
Expand your awareness. Mindfulness is all about zeroing yourself in to the present moment. You can start building awareness by figuring out what it is you are feeling. Then, ask yourself, "Why do I feel sad?" or "Why do I feel anxious?" Lastly, ask yourself what impact these feelings have on you and why they are important.
Decide to be more open. Mindfulness involves the acceptance of feeling all kinds of emotions, whether they are positive or negative. When a negative thought or emotion comes in, allow yourself to experience it. Allow negative thoughts and emotions to enter your mind without pushing them away. If you push them away, simply notice what you are doing and bring them to the foreground of your mind again.
Accept your feelings. Regardless of whether they are positive or negative, emotions are simply emotions and are not trying to harm you. With that said, refrain from diluting these thoughts and feelings, and do not judge them or yourself for experiencing them. Remember that there is nothing to be ashamed about thinking and feeling.
Anchor yourself to the present. When practicing mindfulness, do not forget to be present by paying attention to what you are doing., and do so without judging yourself. In addition, refrain from multitasking. If you become distracted and start to daydream, notice these thoughts, set them aside, and bring yourself back to the present moment.
Foster happiness within yourself
There are four brain chemicals, that need to be released for you to experience more positive emotions. The first one is dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in motivation, pleasure, and reward. Some ways to trigger the release of this chemical are to check off things on your to-do list, create a work of art, and meditate.
The second chemical is oxytocin. Oxytocin allows you to trust others and forge and maintain emotional connections with others. Ways to release oxytocin in your body include engaging in physical touch, maintaining eye contact, mingling with your friends and family, and listening to music.
The next chemical associated with happiness is serotonin, which is involved in self-confidence or social power. In other words, this chemical is released when you feel confident about yourself and feel that you are important to yourself and others. One way to trigger happiness to release serotonin is by lounging under the sun. Other ways also include taking cold showers and getting a massage.
The final brain chemical involved in happiness is the endorphin. Endorphins are released whenever you feel pain or distress, leading you to briefly feel euphoria. To release these chemicals in your body, you can create a work of art, eat spicy food or dark chocolate, or watch a comedy or a drama so that you can laugh or cry, respectively.
Minimize the shame that you might feel
It is okay and valid to feel shame now and then, but the problem lies when you become so ashamed of yourself that you have become your biggest critic. With that said, the following are the steps you can take to reduce your feelings of shame:
- Identify what makes you feel ashamed.
- Take note of how you converse with yourself.
- Write about feeling ashamed.
- Talk to someone whom you trust about your feelings.
- Reframe this shame you are feeling by affirming yourself and being compassionate with yourself.
Encourage resilience in yourself
Finally, one way to expand your window of tolerance is to build up your resilience in the face of stress, trauma, and adversity. To increase your capacity for resilience, you can do the following:
Create and maintain connections with other people. To begin new relationships, you can join a group of interest and connect with its members one-on-one. Alternatively, you can reconnect with old friends and distant family members.
Promote wellness. Focus an all aspects of your health, be it physical, social, or mental. In addition, you will need to refrain from resorting to self-destructive behaviors, such as lashing out and abusing substances.
Find purpose within yourself. You can find purpose by stepping up when an opportunity presents itself to you. You can also break down your long-term goals into short-term goals and accomplish them one step at a time. Finally, you can also find purpose in your life by helping others in ways you know best.
Ask for help
If these strategies don't seem to work for you, then you can always undergo psychotherapy with a mental health professional. This tip is especially important for individuals with preexisting mental illnesses and for survivors of trauma. Sometimes, mental health treatment can be the best way for you to help yourself, which is okay because it is always good to ask for help when you need it. If you are a trauma survivor, especially, you can also work on exercises such as these trauma worksheets as an adjunct to your sessions with your therapist.
Regardless of which strategies you choose, expanding your window of tolerance is not as difficult as it may seem. What is important is your commitment to widening your window so that you can better tolerate stressful events and regulate your emotions.
The Bottom Line
Despite the fact that the size of our window of tolerance is innate, that does not mean that it cannot be widened. It also does not mean that trying to stay within our window is a futile attempt. With that said, to operate more effectively, you can start with recognizing your window of tolerance. Then, experiment with the different window of tolerance exercises to see which ones work for you. It is possible that some may not work for you, but there are definitely others that will. When it comes to mental health, there is always a path toward self-improvement, and we can all take comfort in that.
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