Understanding the Window of Tolerance
Updated: May 22, 2022
"Window of Tolerance", a term coined by Dr Dan Siegel, is now commonly used to understand and describe normal brain/body reactions, especially following adversity.
As infants, when we have healthy attachment interactions with attuned, consistently available, nurturing caregivers, this lays the foundation for the optimal development of our brain and nervous system. Over time this co-regulation (assisted regulation) allows us to learn how to effectively auto-regulate (self-regulate independently). Here is a diagram of the window of tolerance, or where we sit inside or outside of our comfort zone:
The concept suggests that we have an optimal arousal level when we are within the window of tolerance that allows for the ebb and flow (ups and downs of emotions) experienced by human beings. We may experience hurt, anxiety, pain, and anger that brings us close to the edges of the window of tolerance but generally we are able to utilise strategies to keep us within this window. Similarly, we may feel too exhausted, sad, or shut down but we generally shift out of this. Below is a diagram demonstrating the ebb and flow of an optimally regulated nervous system experiencing activation followed by a settling:
(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)
When we experience adversity through trauma and unmet attachment needs this can drastically disrupt our nervous system. Our senses are heightened and our experiences and reactions are typically intensified and strategies are less readily accessible to us. Adverse experiences also shrink our window of tolerance, meaning we have less capacity to ebb and flow and a greater tendency to become overwhelmed more quickly. Learning how to track and shift our affect can be a powerful tool for promoting regulation and integration throughout the brain, body, and mind.
There are three arousal states: calm arousal, hyper-arousal, and hypo-arousal.
Calm arousal is the ideal state and most times during the day we would ideally fluctuate within various levels of calm arousal. However, when we become too over-stimulated (fear, pain, anger, trauma triggers, etc) to the degree that it pushes us outside of our window of tolerance, this is hyper-arousal.
Hyper-arousal is characterised by excessive activation/energy often in the form of anxiety, panic, fear, hyper-vigilance, emotional flooding etc. This keeps our system stuck on “on” and impacts our ability to relax, often making it difficult to sleep, eat and digest food, and optimally manage our emotions. At the most intensified level this may result in dissociative anger, rage or hostility.
Hypo-arousal may occur when we have too much hyper-arousal, surpassing the pain/emotional overwhelm our brain/body is able to tolerate, causing us to plunge into a state of hypo-arousal (shutting down or dissociating). In this state our system can become stuck on “off”, characterised by exhaustion, depression, flat affect, numbness, disconnection, dissociation etc. This also impacts our sleep in that we may want to sleep all the time, and can impact our appetite and digestion as well and may make us feel emotionally deadened.
(Levine, Ogden, Siegel)
As human beings we only have capacity to stay in one state for so long before the brain and body shifts us. For example, we can only tolerate so much pain, anxiety, fear, etc, before the brain and body respond and numb us to this excessive energy. Similarly, people will only stay in a shut-down state, feeling emotionally deadened inside, before the brain / body shifts us out of this often by gravitating towards (often subconsciously) things that make us feel alive. This could mean that we gravitate towards high-risk behaviours or activities uncharacteristic for us to bring about that sense of excitement, activation, and vitality. Essentially, we are self-preserving as there is some part of the brain / body that is not ready to be dead yet. Many people will share that they "don't feel right", "are crazy”, “messed up" etc. They know that they don't feel okay, but without having experienced regulation in infancy and childhood, or following unresolved traumatic experiences that remain activated in the brain and body, people may find themselves unable to self-regulate. Instead, people often attempt to self-regulate and bring themselves into an optimal / calm arousal level any way that they can, without even knowing this is what they are trying to do. For example, someone with excessive fear may gravitate towards a depressant to calm their brain and nervous system whereas someone feeling emotionally deadened may gravitate towards a stimulant to make them feel alive. Understanding the function of how we are responding and what may be needed to effectively shift this emotional state is critical for finding effective strategies to shift arousal that don't lead to further harm to ourselves or others or leave us with a sense of shame. This can be referred to as a false refuge in that it provides the "illusion" that it is helping but in the end the problem is still there and may be even bigger and now we have layered on shame, guilt, a sense of failure, etc., as we have responded in a way that we didn't want to. A "true refuge" is something we do for ourselves that effectively allows us to shift towards our optimal arousal zone while building competencies and taking care of ourselves in a manner that feels good. We can start to help ourselves by identifying and labelling how we are feeling: “I’m feeling overwhelmed, why don’t I take a break?” etc. Dan Siegel refers to this as "name it to tame it". Naming it allows for a sense of understanding and being seen as well as validation. When we stop to notice (within ourselves or others), this can be a powerful grounding tool.
What we are aiming for is to learn to focus mindfully on noticing how we feel, how our body feels, and identifying what we need to feel right again.
Our goal is to essentially broaden our window of tolerance, increasing capacity for us to hold emotional experiences (even intense ones) without becoming dysregulated or going into a state of hyper or hypo-arousal.
Below is another useful visual to help understand the concept of how trauma can affect our window of tolerance:
When we understand where we are within this window of tolerance, it allows us implement skills and strategies to effectively promote affect regulation. The function of the behaviour is important to understand with compassionate curiosity. For example, for someone who is self-harming, are they self-harming because the pain they feel is so intense that the self-harming behaviour is the only thing that provides release, or are they doing so because they feel so emotionally deadened that they self-harm to feel alive?
If we have too much discharging of excess energy and intense emotions, this will often help to shift things. Think about it... this is precisely what happens when intense emotions build then explode out of us through conflict or chaos. There is a release of the emotional build-up, but it is messy and harmful for us and those around us. Instead, learning how to effectively release these intense emotions can be helpful. Similarly, if we are feeling shut down, using strategies to optimally stimulate our brain and nervous system in a healthy and empowering manner can shift us out of this state in a way that feels good for us. There are some example interventions for shifting arousal levels below, but again these are general strategies. Those unique to the individual will have the greatest effect. The key is figuring out what works and when. At times some activities may be down-regulating / grounding while at other times the same activity may be stimulating. Try different things and find what works well for you. Practice strategies when you are calm and on a regular basis this will build your capacity to access these when you start to become overwhelmed.
Sample activities to decrease arousal include:
Diaphragmatic breathing (deep and slow tummy breathing)
Drinking from a straw
Throwing a therapy / yoga ball at a blank wall or outside wall
Jumping on a trampoline or mini trampoline
Using a weighted blanket
Lying in warm water
Shaking or stomping out excess energy
Rolling on a therapy / yoga ball
Heavy work (lifting, pulling, push ups, wheelbarrow races, crab walk, leap frog, etc.)
Music (soothing and calming music and sounds)
Comforting food (hot chocolate or something chewy but smooth)
Sample activities to increase arousal include:
Anything that stimulates the senses!
Smelling essential oils (smell is the fastest way to the thinking brain)
Chewing crunchy food
Use of sensory shaker for tactile input
Jumping on a trampoline or mini trampoline
Gently sitting and bouncing on therapy ball (simulating rocking motion)
Using a weighted blanket
Water play with a straw (blowing through the straw)
Dancing and music
Elevated arousal makes it more likely that an individual will be more reactive, startle more readily, have difficulty concentrating and focusing, feel unsafe in open or crowded spaces, and constantly be scanning for threat even when no threat is present.
Below is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique that you can use. The goal of this is to use the five senses to focus on the moment and avoid multiple anxious thoughts.
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