What is our Window of Tolerance?

17 Jan 2023


We all have times when it seems that we are a bit on the edge, where we get easily irritated, stressed and wound up. Or conversely we don’t know how to respond to something, so we retreat and shut off. Its normal, we might not like it when it happens  - but it is normal!

However, there can be times in our lives when we feel super sensitive to external stimuli, be this another person (our spouse, our children, a colleague, etc), work demands, conflict, etc. It may be that your “Window of Tolerance” has become quite narrow and you easily slip into Hypo or Hyper Arousal. Let me explain…….

The concept of the Window of Tolerance  was introduced to us by Dan Siegal and is a great way to understand our own mental functioning and relating behaviours. Everyone has a Window of Tolerance, some of us a very wide window and might appear to tolerate most things, whereas some of us have a very narrow window feeling intolerant and set off easily by so many things around us. We might have a very wide window some of the time, and at other times it closes in. It is linked to our nervous system and is influenced by our past, which can shape what we come to expect and as such how to respond.

When we function within our Window we are grounded, we feel safe/secure, we can be present, make calm decisions, connect with people and see things from their frame of refence as well as our own. We are open and receptive to new ideas and learning. We are at an optimum state of physiological and psychological arousal to regulate our emotions should something unexpected come our way. Sounds like a pretty great place to be doesn’t it?!

However, there are some things and times in life when we come out of our Window of Tolerance and respond to external stimuli a little differently:

If we respond from a state of Hyper-Arousal the sympathetic branch of our nervous system is kicked in and we are on alert. We are in a state of Fight or Flight, often feeling overwhelmed and chaotic, unclear in our racing thoughts, feeling distressed. We might respond with outbursts anger or panic, and/or we might have physical responses such as nausea or fidgeting as we feel out of control. Ultimately in this level of arousal we find it very difficult to regulate our emotional responses and self soothe. You are likely to find yourself being short fused with people – and also yourself!

On the other hand, when we are not in the window we may instead come from a state of Hypo-Arousal, where this time the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system comes into play. This response is one of being withdrawn and disconnected – from our own feelings and other people. We feel numb, lethargic and unmotivated to respond to the situation. It might feel that we have shut off from the world, functioning on auto-pilot. Again here it can be difficult to regulate your emotions, possibly you feeling a sense of shame or guilt, and being in this state can dissociate us from that. But we may lose a sense of connection to people which can leave us feeling alone.

The wider our Window of Tolerance the more we can check in and regulate our own emotional responses, giving us less opportunity to slip into hyper or hypo arousal.

So how do we do that?

Most techniques that fall under the umbrella of “Mindfulness” can help. So meditation, breathing exercises etc are all geared to help us to calm the nervous system and connect us to the present. There are plenty of websites and apps that you can find to help you with these.

For some people, the reasons behind the narrower window may be rooted in a big life event that needs some time to be explored and processed in order for you move forward. You may have suffered a loss, be experiencing family/relationship problems that aren’t healing, or be battling with a sense of self-confidence that effects multiple aspects of your life. Evidence suggests that being a hyper or hypo arousal can be a trauma response that links back to childhood or more recent events that you have experienced. In these cases, Counselling/Psychotherapy might be more beneficial, giving you a safe space to talk through what you have experienced, the impact it has had on you and look at the emotions that have come about and are carried with you from this. A key outcome of therapy is often a greater self-awareness which essentially opens up our Window of Tolerance and gives us the tools within to keep ourselves grounded and able to respond to life’s hurdles with confidence and calmness.