The Window of Tolerance was first coined by Dan Seigel to describe the “optimal zone of arousal for a person to function in everyday life.” This window is the state where a person can effectively manage and cope with their emotions, and readily receive, process, and integrate information. When in this window, a person can adapt and respond in a way that fits the situation.
When you leave the Window of Tolerance, the reactions take over. They are instincts built within your body from evolution (they are instincts that helped out ancestors to survive and were passed down to us) and past experiences. They are about what was helpful then, but they may not be helpful now. For trauma survivors, these reactions are the story of their survival. They are reactions that were not integrated into the system, so when something similar happens in the present they come back feeling like they are in the present moment, but they are tied to the past.
When you are outside your “Window of Tolerance,” you are not able to think properly and that is because your prefrontal cortex (the thinking/reasoning part of the brain) in the brain has shut down to allow the survival part of the brain to take over. Before you can think about the situation, you need to get back to your “Window of Tolerance.” There are various techniques to achieve that, including grounding skills.
Hyperarousal is a heightened state of activation/energy and is often referred to as the “Fight, flight, or freeze response.” The person’s nervous system is on high alert and primed to respond to danger. This may appear as:
- Angry outbursts
- Tight muscles
- “Deer in the headlight” freeze
When you experience chronic hyperarousal, you may experience:
- Emotional overwhelm
- Racing thoughts
- Feeling unsafe
Hyperarousal can be helped through deep breathing, orientation grounding techniques, and self-soothing techniques.
Hypoarousal is a “shutdown” or “collapse” response. It can either come directly from leaving the Window of Tolerance or come after going through a Hyperarousal state after leaving the Window of Tolerance. It comes from too little arousal and an overloaded parasympathetic nervous system. Hypoarousal can appear as:
- Blank stare
- Inability to speak
- Flaccid body/paralysis without obvious cause (trauma)
When you experience Chronic Hypoarousal, you may experience:
- No feelings
- No energy
- Not present
- Unable to think
- Shut down
- Unable to say “no”
Hypoarousal can be helped through movement, reminders of the present moment and location, focus on one of the 5 senses, and re-regulating the breath.
While stress and trauma can shrink your window of tolerance there are strategies that you can use to expand your Window of Tolerance. Grounding and mindfulness skills can be used to return to the window of tolerance. Processing trauma through specific modalities such as EMDR, Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy can help to widen a person’s window of tolerance.
The National Institute for the clinical application of Behavioural Medicine has a useful infographic on their website as well as good information about the Window of Tolerance. https://www.nicabm.com/trauma-how-to-help-your-clients-understand-their-window-of-tolerance/
A book that describes well how the Window of Tolerance works with people who have been traumatized is Janina Fisher’s book “Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma.”