In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the window of tolerance.
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 (there are medications that may help somewhat with nightmare symptoms).
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
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 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?
- Corrigan, F. M., Fisher, J. J., & Nutt, D. J. (2011). Autonomic dysregulation and the window of tolerance model of the effects of complex emotional trauma. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(1), 17-25.
- Gill, L. (2017). Understanding and working with the window of tolerance. Attachment and Trauma Treatment Centre for Healing.
- GoodTherapy. (2016). Window of tolerance.
- Hamilton Health Sciences. (n.d.). The window of tolerance framework.
- St. Michael’s Hospital. (n.d.). Mindfulness and the window of tolerance.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.