What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… the Window of Tolerance

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is the window of tolerance.

Winterdragonflies recently did a post on this topic that got me interested in doing more reading on the topic.

The window of tolerance was first described by psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel in 1999. It’s used to describe levels of arousal, both psychological and physiological (and no, not sexual). The window represents the middle zone between hypoarousal and hyperarousal, a zone in which we’re able to emotionally self-regulate and tolerate emotions, as well as be present and engaged.

The window of tolerance isn’t the same for everybody, and the concept is most often used in the context of trauma, since nervous system dysregulation is so characteristic of trauma responses. Trauma also has a tendency to narrow a person’s window of tolerance. Stress can also narrow the window, while therapy can widen it.

While wise mind in dialectical behaviour therapy isn’t based on nervous system regulation, it has some overlap with this concept with both rational and emotional mind engaged and balanced to promote self-regulation.

Hyper- and hypoarousal

Hyperarousal happens when the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear and things get really busy and on edge. The response can build into the volcano in the diagram above, ready to blow, whether that’s a fight or flight response or internal panic and getting lost in overwhelm. Hyperarousal can also trigger flashbacks and nightmares.

In hypoarousal, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over. Energy drains out and the mind collapses inward. This can produce numbness, passivity, feeling depressed, dissociation, or a freeze response. Hypoarousal may lead to attachment or submission in an attempt to improve safety.

During periods of both hypo- and hyperarousal, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for more advanced cognitive function, goes into a sort of hibernation mode, which impairs problem-solving and decision-making. That ends up making it even harder to get back into the window

Self-regulating

Behaviours like self-harm or substance use may be maladaptive attempts to get into a more tolerable level of arousal. More adaptive strategies that can help to regulate arousal include physical activity for hyperarousal and sensory stimulation for hypoarousal.

Mindfulness can increase awareness of nearing the edges of the window, and grounding skills can be a way of dropping anchor within the window.

Usefulness of the model

One of the good things about this model is that it’s pretty easy to understand, and it could be potentially be useful in helping family members understand what their loved one who’s a trauma survivor is dealing with.

While I was familiar with nervous system dysregulation, it’s been quite recently that I first heard of the window of tolerance model. One is the many good things about blogging is that it’s a great way to be exposed to new things.

Is this model something that you were familiar with? Is it something you find applicable in your own situation?

Sources

Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

The what is… series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically psychological tests here.

27 thoughts on “What Is… the Window of Tolerance”

  1. This is really interesting and like you say, it could be really useful for others to understand where a person is at in their trauma experience. I’d never seen this before! 🙂

  2. The main thing learning about the Window of Tolerance gave me, was the ability to understand why certain things would tip me over the edge yet other people coped well with it. Even the small things.

    Once I was able to see why, I stopped beating myself up for it and was less self-critical.

    Your post is very informative and I have learnt more because of it.

  3. Familiar with it from hospitalizations and early therapy. Definitely saw it used with DBT, specifically emotion regulation.

    We find it a practical reference for framing one’s present reality. Still, we do not reference it much. And the grounding that would accompany hyperarousal or the sensory stimulation that would respond to hypoarousal are likewise not at all habitual for us even after 3.5 years of it.

    It helps therapists ask patients to name their present experience in WOT terms, and it has never really helped us get into a better spot. When we are hyper- or hypoaroused, we are pretty lost within ourselves.

    We have a pretty tiny window perpetually. Some days, any object dropped in our house by anyone can send us crying, while some days we are so hypoaroused that loud noises might not disrupt our dissociative torpor.

    We used to not be able to hike at all during hunting season, due to gunshot reports—felt unsafe. Now, we seem less afraid of being shot and mostly just scared of the noise. That is probably a wide mind result.

  4. “Behaviours like self-harm or substance use may be maladaptive attempts to get into a more tolerable level of arousal.”

    I thought this was very interesting. Also the information about the prefrontal cortex needing stimulation. I am very much in hypoarousal these days so now I’m off too engage it.

  5. Very interesting blog post! I’d never heard of it either! But you know how I love being back in psych class!

    I can definitely believe that self-harm and addictions are tools to try to get back to the place you want to be. What did you call it? Scrolling up… the window of tolerance. I think I’ve felt that way while self-harming or bingeing on junk food in the past. It’s sad, because self-harm makes me feel like I’m a total failure, and I imagine it might make others feel that way, too, but it really is done to try to fix what’s wrong, in a weird sense.

    It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid, and my mom would put all this pressure on me to fix her emotional collapses, and I started shrieking my lungs out to relieve the pressure. Like, I thought I was a bad, misbehaving kid, but I was in actuality trying to get myself out of the pressure cooker she put me in, because I was fit to explode. And in retrospect, I’m sort of impressed with myself, because at the young age of eight, I decided almost consciously that shrieking my lungs out was okay, because it wasn’t physically violent against anyone. That blows my mind that I cared. My parents were violent with me, but I was never violent with them. Not always because I feared them, but it felt wrong to me, like I wouldn’t stoop to that. Nor did I bully my siblings.

    Sometimes I feel hopeless because I keep telling myself these things, but I STILL struggle to value myself. Geez! I need to throttle some sense into my stupid head.

    Another thing it makes me think of is a startle response. I’ve had a massive one since my sister assaulted me. I’ll jump a mile and yelp if something startles me, whereas before, I was never like that. Very interesting topic!!

  6. I’m familiar with it from my time in occupational therapy for sensory processing disorder. In that context, the window is super small, so people with SPD may be constantly bouncing in and out of it. That makes learning strategies to regulate as well as learning to identify when you’re dysregulated really important. Interesting stuff!

  7. I don’t know if I read it right, but here in Croatia, we have an expression: “My fuse is short.” I have tolerance for all things but zero for covert verbal aggression. And while I might accept the same amount of criticism delivered in a straightforward way I become angry when it is present it in a toxic way.

  8. This is interesting and makes a lot of sense. It’s a very easy model to understand, too. I agree with it and have seen these things in my life and in my reactions. Great topic!

  9. Great, informative post! Timely for me too – my therapist was just talking to me about the window of tolerance this week!! Understanding the concept of hyoparousal has been really helpful for understanding why my partner sometimes goes silent in stressful situations.

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