July 18, 2021
For anybody interested in healing work, understanding the Window of Tolerance is important not only for trauma resolution but also for preventing overwhelm both within and outside of counselling.
Originally coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, The Window of Tolerance recognizes three different nervous system states. These are calmness/wellbeing (within the window of tolerance), hyper-arousal (also known as the fight/flight response), and hypo-arousal (also known as the freeze response).
Calmness or wellbeing is the state we hope to be in most of the time and this indicates that we are within the window of tolerance. In this nervous system state, we feel settled enough and are able to be present in the moment, aware of both what is going on inside oneself and of one’s surroundings. We may still experience degrees of emotions such as sadness, anxiety and frustration but these will feel tolerable and manageable. We can fully process our experience and are at more or less optimal capacity to respond to challenges.
Hyper-arousal is a state of excess nervous system energy and is outside the window of tolerance. It can include intense anxiety, fear, panic, anger or rage. In this state, we may feel as if we are overwhelmed with emotion. It may feel as if our emotions are controlling us rather than guiding us. We may find it difficult to sleep, relax or even sit still.
Hypo-arousal is a state of very low nervous system activation and is outside the window of tolerance. It is characterized by feelings such as exhaustion, flattened affect, depression and numbness. We may find it difficult to motivate ourselves at all in this state. This can often come as a consequence of too much hyper-arousal and our nervous system essentially exhausting itself until it has a chance to rest and recovery in safety.
Just as people vary a great deal in characteristics such as height, everybody’s window of tolerance is different. Some people are naturally more resilient while others can be extremely sensitive. This is further affected by life experiences.
Our Window of Tolerance is Changing all the Time
The description above describes these nervous system states as if they are completely separate from one another. In reality, the boundaries between the states are fuzzy and we often shift between various states. We may even notice when we are ‘close’ to feeling overwhelmed or, on the other side of the window, feeling tired and sluggish and needing to rest or withdraw.
Depending on our physical and mental state, we may have a ‘wider’ or ‘narrower’ window at different times. Healthy habits such as a nutritious diet, regular exercise and being well-rested will support a wider window of tolerance while illness and substance abuse typically narrow the window. If you reflect on your own experience, you can probably recall tolerating stressors far better when you are rested and clear-headed, as compared to when you are ill, tired, and/or hungover.
Our window is also affected by outside events such as work and relationship stress. These will challenge and may even push us outside our window.
Trauma and the Window of Tolerance
Although everybody shifts in and out of these states at times, those who have suffered from trauma or early unmet attachment needs will find themselves more frequently uncomfortable, unsettled or distressed. These experiences essentially reduce one’s capacity for calmness and people with such histories often have a much smaller window of tolerance. If these are issues you struggle with, it makes day-to-day life much more challenging and distressing. You may struggle frequently with overwhelm, a lack of drive and motivation, or both. Sometimes, when traumatic experiences are unprocessed, a person’s nervous system can essentially ‘get stuck’ in hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal.
A major goal of trauma counselling is not only to reduce and let go of distress connected to painful past events, but also to expand one’s capacity to stay present and within the window of tolerance. In counselling, this is supported in several ways. Firstly, by offering an experience of relational safety within the counselling relationship and supporting healthy attachment, secondly, by helping you better recognize when you are within or outside your personal window, and finally, by teaching tools to better regulate your nervous system and supporting you to release past trauma.
National Institute for the clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine. (2019). How to Help Your Clients Understand Their Window of Tolerance. NICABM. https://www.nicabm.com/trauma-how-to-help-your-clients-understand-their-window-of-tolerance/comment-page-2/#comment-1614931.
Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing Mind. New York: Guilford.