window of tolerance illustration

What is the Window of Tolerance, and what does it mean for me?

Sometimes it can feel as though our emotions are the one's behind the driver’s seat. So many things we encounter in our everyday lives can bring about a wide variety of emotions. When we experience stress or we feel triggered, being able to manage our emotions can help us cope. It is important to remember that emotions are not our enemy, but how can we manage what feels like the unmanageable such as anxiety, pain, or anger? This is where the Window of Tolerance can come in.

Picture a little window, this window represents our ability to effectively deal with day-to-day stress. When we are within this window, we experience the ups and downs that come with emotions which may bring us close to the edges of our window, but we can use strategies to keep us within it. We can manage and cope with emotions that come our way.

For those of us who have experienced trauma, anxiety, or other mental health struggles it can be a bit more challenging to stay in this window. It can feel difficult to regulate our emotions, the ability to effectively cope with day-to-day stress or deal with triggers now becomes a narrower window. Experiencing a trauma, for example, can make our window smaller.

Feeling Dysregulated: Hyperarousal versus Hypoarousal

Being emotionally dysregulated has us feeling as though we are less able to control emotions. This happens when we are outside of our window of tolerance, our reactions may feel more intense, and it becomes more challenging to use strategies to cope with stress. Dysregulation happens when we start to come outside of our window of tolerance, and there are two different types we can experience.

Hyperarousal: Think of this one as the spot above our window. Hyperarousal is characterized by excessive energy, heightened senses of anxiety, and fight-or-flight responses. When in hyperarousal, we can be overly responsive or sensitive and experience symptoms such as anxiety, panic, anger, or defensiveness. In this state, it can be hard to do seemingly simple things like sleeping or eating.

Hypoarousal: Think of this one as the spot below our window. Hypoarousal is the opposite of the one mentioned above, its characterized by too little arousal. When in hypoarousal, we can have symptoms such as lack of feeling, numbness, lack of energy, and reduced movement. Hypoarousal can also impact basic functioning like sleep or eating and leave us feeling emotionally flat.

Bringing Ourselves Back into the Window

The first step is being able to recognize when we are outside of our window of tolerance, we can do this by:

  1. Paying attention to our symptoms
  2. Identifying the symptoms we experience
  3. Acknowledging our distress level
  4. Identifying the cause behind it

Something as simple as self-awareness can make it a lot easier to get back into our window of tolerance. We can take action to not only bring ourselves back into our window but start to widen our window with time. This is where self-regulation skills come in handy, and there are quite a few options based on which state we are in:

Self-regulation for Hyperarousal

  • Breathing exercises (like deep breathing)
  • Meditation
  • Healthy strategies to release anger
  • Yoga

Self-regulation for Hypoarousal

  • Activating our senses (like a bath or massage)
  • Grounding exercises (like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique)
  • Physical activity

By simply gaining an awareness of when we are within or outside of our window of tolerance can be a powerful first step in feeling a bit more in control. Discovering when we are in a certain arousal state and learning ways to slowly bring ourselves back into the window can help us gain confidence in our ability to cope with struggles and manage emotions.

References

Catalyst Psychology (n.d.). Window of Tolerance. https://www.catalystpsychology.co.uk/window_of_tolerance

Corrigan, F. M., Fisher, J. J., & Nutt, D. J. (2011). Autonomic dysregulation and the window of tolerance model of the effects of complex emotional trauma. Journal of Psychopharmacology25(1), 17-25. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881109354930

Gill, L. (2017, November 25). Understanding and Working with the Window of Tolerance. https://www.attachment-and-trauma-treatment-centre-for-healing.com/blogs/understanding-and-working-with-the-window-of-tolerance

Mind My Peelings (2019, April 19). Understanding the Window of Tolerance and How it Affects You. https://www.mindmypeelings.com/blog/window-of-tolerance?rq=window

National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine (n.d.) How to help your clients understand their window of tolerance. https://www.nicabm.com/trauma-how-to-help-your-clients-understand-their-window-of-tolerance/