We need to talk about the Window of Tolerance

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Anyone who has experienced trauma in their life has their own triggers and responds to them differently. We even respond to some triggers differently than others. I often hear clients beating themselves up for overreacting to a trigger or wondering why a stressful event affected them a certain way. They are left feeling ashamed and not knowing what to do.

In my opinion, the Window of Tolerance is the best place to start to better understand yourself and figure out what to do next.

The Window of Tolerance is a concept developed by Dan Siegel, MD, and describes an area of optimal functioning in which a person can thrive. 

Simply put, being within the Window of Tolerance means you are able to stay present, connected to your thoughts and feelings, and make rational decisions. 

Even if you are in the midst of a stressful situation, if you’re within your Window of Tolerance you are able to clearly think through it. You have the capacity to decide how to deal with the problem effectively.

When you’re outside of your Window of Tolerance, however, it becomes really difficult for you to respond to stress or even be able to operate in your day-to-day life.  Being outside of your Window of Tolerance means that you are either hyper-aroused (overwhelmed, overreactive) or hypo-aroused (numb, disconnected). We’ll talk more about these terms below, but it’s important to know if you are outside of your Window of Tolerance so you can respond accordingly with a coping strategy that will help you return to your Window of Tolerance.

As mentioned before, everyone responds to stress and triggers differently, and so everyone’s Window of Tolerance will look different.

Here’s an easy way to find your Window of Tolerance: 

Start by considering your range of distress like a thermometer that goes from 0 to 100, with 100 being the worst you can imagine.

Think about the last time you felt just a little frustrated and choose a number that best represents your level of distress from 0 to 100. Maybe it’s 28.

From there, choose a number that you would consider your boiling point. This is when things start to feel overwhelming. You might look back and realize a time when you weren’t able to think clearly, had racing thoughts, or had a really hard time calming down. You were outside of your Window of Tolerance. That number is in the zone of hyper-arousal.

Then, you may want to determine a freezing point. This represents experiences outside (or below) your Window of Tolerance, when you begin to feel numb, depressed, or lethargic. You might have felt detached from yourself or felt stuck. You might not have been able to feel any feelings at all. When this happens, your freezing point indicates that you have entered the zone of hypo-arousal.

Everything between your boiling point and freezing point is considered your Window of Tolerance. You feel grounded and secure. For some, this might be a very small Window, and you can only think of times when things were going your way. That’s okay.

“Many trauma survivors find themselves fluctuating between the two states [hypo- and hyper-arousal], tamping down distress as long as they can—barely living, only existing—until the next trigger comes along, and suddenly, they’re flooded with panic, intrusive memories, and the impulse to escape from the fright or the emotional pain.” -Deborah L. Korn, PsyD, co-author of Every Memory Deserves Respect.

In therapy, the goal is to help you widen your Window of Tolerance over time so that you can adapt to stress and triggers with more of a sense of control. It’s not that you won’t be affected by a conflict at work, or not at all bothered by running into your ex. But you will be able to better navigate those circumstances by remaining present, connected, and thoughtful. 

Learning to tolerate varying levels of stress will help you to be more capable to make the decisions you want to make, no matter what life throws at you. 

This takes time, effort, and the support of others. Sending my best on your journey. 

Stay tuned for my next post on how to choose a coping strategy to get back into your Window of Tolerance.

I'd love the chance to help you along in this process of discovery, growth and healing. Contact me below to get started today.