Window of Tolerance
Window of tolerance is a term used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. When people are within this zone, they are typically able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty. This optimal window was first named as such by Dan Siegel.
What Is the Window of Tolerance?
When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.
During times of extreme stress, people often experience periods of either hyper- or hypo-arousal.
- Hyper-arousal, otherwise known as the fight/flight response, is often characterized by hypervigilance, feelings of anxiety and/or panic, and racing thoughts.
- Hypo-arousal, or a freeze response, may cause feelings of emotional numbness, emptiness, or paralysis.
In either of these states, an individual may become unable to process stimuli effectively. The prefrontal cortex region of the brain shuts down, in a manner of speaking, affecting the ability to think rationally and often leading to the development of feelings of dysregulation, which may take the form of chaotic responses or overly rigid ones. In these periods, a person can be said to be outside the window of tolerance.
Each individual’s window of tolerance is different. Those who have a narrow window of tolerance may often feel as if their emotions are intense and difficult to manage. Others with a wider window of tolerance may be able to handle intense emotions or situations without feeling like their ability to function has been significantly impacted.
The window of tolerance can also be affected by environment: people are generally more able to remain within the window when they feel safe and supported.
Most people move between these varying states of arousal from time to time. Trauma and/or extreme stress often make it more likely a person will become either hyper- or hypo-aroused.
The Window of Tolerance in Relation to Mental Health
The stress of a traumatic or otherwise negative event may have the effect of “pushing” a person out of their window of tolerance. People who have experienced a traumatic event may respond to stressors, even minor ones, with extreme hyper- or hypo-arousal. As a result of their experiences, they may come to believe the world is unsafe and may operate with a window of tolerance that has become more narrow or inflexible as a result. A narrowed window of tolerance may cause people to perceive danger more readily and react to real and imagined threats with either a fight/flight response or a freeze response.
People who frequently operate outside of their window of tolerance may experience mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
A person who is often in a state of hyper-arousal may develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress, such as flashbacks, nightmares, and derealization. A person who is often in a state of hypo-arousal may dissociate, have memory issues, and experience feelings of depersonalization.
Managing the Window of Tolerance
It is possible for individuals who have become dysregulated to use techniques to return to their window of tolerance. Grounding and mindfulness skills, techniques considered beneficial by many mental health experts, can often help people remain in the present moment. By focusing on the physical sensations currently being experienced, for example, people are often able to remain in the present, calming and soothing themselves enough to effectively manage extreme arousal. These techniques, and others, can be learned in therapy.
Many individuals are able to widen their window of tolerance and, by doing so, increase their sense of calm and become able to deal with stress in more adaptive ways. Therapy, which provides a safe space for people to process painful memories and emotions, can be a helpful step for many. With the help of a mental health professional, individuals are often able to make contact with their emotions without becoming so dysregulated that they cannot integrate them. Increasing emotional regulation capabilities in this way can lead to a wider window of tolerance and prevent dysregulation.
- Dezelic, M. (2013). Window of tolerance- trauma/anxiety-related responses: widening the comfort zone for increased flexibility. Retrieved from http://www.drmariedezelic.com/#!window-of-tolerance–traumaanxiety-rela/ca9e
- Mindfulness and the window of tolerance. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stmichaelshospital.com/pdf/programs/mast/mast-session1.pdf
- Ogden, P. (2009, December 7). Modulation, mindfulness, and movement in the treatment of trauma-related depression. In M. Kerman (Ed.). Clinical pearls of wisdom: 21 therapists offer their key insights (1-13). New York: Norton Professional Books.
- Trauma, power-based violence, and sexual health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sapac.umich.edu/article/trauma-power-based-violence-sexual-health
- Waters, F. S. (2016, March 28). Healing the fractured child: Diagnosis and treatment of youth with dissociation. New York: Springer Publishing Company, LLC.
Last Updated: 08-8-2016
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VideoPortalMarch 28th, 2017 at 3:25 AM
For survivors of complex trauma, triggers in the present, can remind one of the past, thus activating our nervous system to believe that it is under attack which then moves one into either hyper or hypo arousal. Ultimately treatment involves knowing when we are activated and then using grounding skills to help us return to optimal level of tolerance.
Kim MoirJune 1st, 2017 at 10:53 AM
I love this article, and as a school social worker and Registered Play Therapist, I have been observing this in children at school who do well at home and at school struggle to hold it together. One child, a kindergarten student, was adopted out of foster care at age 3. Now the child is firmly attached to parents and calm at home but has difficulties at school and frequent meltdowns. I thought this was the problem, but here is the article supporting my initial thoughts. Thank you!!!
SabrinaNovember 4th, 2017 at 8:24 AM
michaelMarch 28th, 2018 at 5:35 AM
The text is too vague and too abstract. To me the window of tolerance sound more like a weird interpretation of the Fight-or-flight response.
AlegriaMarch 18th, 2020 at 4:44 AM
Fight and Flight/Freeze yep I agree. Also I don’t think “mindfulness” is a useful technique because it’s too mental rather than physical and emotional. Soothing is an emotional or physical thing not a focus of the mind. No one can focus the mind when overwhelmed, swamped, drowing, or overstimulated. Doing something physical and listening to or seeing something that soothes the emotions and calms the nervous system. Mindfulness is for people with chattery self talk and stress at work.
LeisaJuly 3rd, 2019 at 9:06 PM
JoyJuly 9th, 2019 at 6:05 PM
I’m finding so many articles like this one that presuppose that the therapist’s office is a safe place. I have had two times over about 2 1/2 years where the therapist was not safe. He has been open with his boundaries, and when I inquire about how his vacation went, he becames angry, because I have asked what he did on the working vacation that he had just returned from. When I told him that he had shared more personal information with me before, his response was that he was changing his boundaries. I am always off kilter because he changes things abruptly and without warning. I often can’t figure out whether I am doing something that he doesn’t like, or whether he is reacting to something else in his life or practice.
I am tired of trying to figure out what he is telling me and I think that he should be clearer with me. He says that I am intelligent and can figure it out for myself. We are at an impasse right now.
It took a very long time for me to get to a place of trust with him, and I am afraid that I am going to have to go through that again. That thought really is overwhelming to me, having to start at square one again. I am an older woman, (75) and I feel that I want to work these things out before I am too feeble to be able to do it.
Any thoughts or advice would be greatly appreciated.
MBNovember 24th, 2019 at 7:08 AM
Your situation sounds emotionally abusive. I think it is important to recognize that many therapists are not trauma-informed and perpetuate trauma. Even if they understand psychological theory, they are not well trained on how to create safety for vulnerable people.
AlegriaMarch 18th, 2020 at 4:47 AM
Years ago, decades in fact, I attended counselling with a number of different people and the only helpful person was the one who did something unconventional – suggest I DO something different ie. start a journal of self actualisation, pasting in or drawing images of things I like, would like to do etc writing thoughts about goals and aspirations. This was actually a grounding tool for me because it helped me become more solid in my own estimation. TAlk therapy is exhaustion therapy. Therapist who expected me to tell them everything just drained out my lifeblood. Even though it was so long ago it just makes me feel sapped writing about it.
JujuJune 11th, 2020 at 8:24 PM
Hi Kim, your statement described my daugther. What can i do to help her cope better? Withdraw from school? Is there other solutions besides withdrawing from school? Because i am a full time working mom. Thanks
Di LeedMay 1st, 2021 at 9:02 PM
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Sara GTMay 2nd, 2021 at 1:14 PM
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The story goesDecember 3rd, 2021 at 5:32 AM
My therapist twiggy me a great self soothing technique. It’s something that actually builds on something else I learnt which is, when I have a negative thought acknowledge it but say, Thank you but I don’t have time for you now. My latest therapidt taught me,- Here is the story that,— which is very helpful when I become anxious because I treat my thoughts as facts when in fact it’s often just a story I tell myself. Here’s the story that I’m dumb, stupid etc. It’s helped me step back and be objective but also kept me in my window. I hope it helps others put there.
MariJuly 4th, 2022 at 12:23 AM
Alegria, mindfulness can be different things for different people, and in lots of cases can be something physical. :)
leeDecember 3rd, 2022 at 4:42 PM
It is sad for me as a therapist to hear of peoples unsafe and unhelpful experiences in therapy.
I would say listen to your gut and don’t stay in a therapeutic relationship unless you feel safe. I realise for some that is hard to recognise due to trauma but I think, if it doesn’t feel right it’s probably not right.
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