What is the Window of Tolerance?
We are constantly bombarded by internal and external data. Environmental (internal and external) stimuli broadcast threats and opportunities, arousing our system begging a response. When incoming data registers as important, we react—first biologically than behaviorally. Our system operates smoothly, most of the time. However, for optimum performance, we must remain within a window of tolerance.
Ideally, we respond protectively against threats and proactively seize opportunities. However, there are a few glitches in our biologically reactive systems. Sometimes stimuli overwhelms, we may shift into survival mode, scrapping long term goals for immediate benefits, or when overwhelmed sometimes we just freeze. Other times, important events fail to register as emotionally important, we dismiss opportunities or stand unguarded against approaching dangers.
Daniel J. Seigel Ph.D., psychologist and founder of interpersonal neurobiology, refers to the ideal emotional state for appropriate response to environmental stimuli as our window of tolerance. In our window of tolerance, we are aroused enough to perceive opportunities and threats but not over aroused.
Physical Reactions to Stimuli
Daniel Siegel wrote, “when people move beyond their windows of tolerance, they lose the capacity to think rationally” (2001). Linda Graham, a marriage and family therapist, mindfulness teacher, and expert on the neuroscience of human relationships explains that in the window of tolerance, we are able “to cope with anything without resorting to our primitive survival responses” (2013).
Heightened arousal has an adaptive purpose, even when the arousal exceeds our normal window of tolerance. Arousal is a biological response to stress. Stressors are physical and psychological threats to safety, status, or wellbeing. Most notable are the physical and psychological demands that exceed available resources to adequately respond (Rabey & Moloney, 2022).
There are times when we benefit from emotional hijacking. A stressor signals immediate danger and reacts without consulting with the executive functions of our brain. Lower brain areas, such as the amygdala, take over, temporarily disconnecting from the prefrontal cortex, and initiating action. We serve to avoid the distracted driver that just ran a red light without any help from slower cognitive processes. Subsequently, we survive.
Significant Events Push us Outside Our Window of Tolerance
T. Franklin Murphy wrote “a raised voice, a shadow, an uncomfortable question, a critical remark, unexpected change, or a crazed man with a ninja sword move the body through physiological changes. Depending on the immediacy and severity of the information, the heart speeds, blood flows, and complex cognitive appraisal are suspended” (2014).
Siegel explains that significant threats change “the direction of the energy flow within the brain.” Usually, spikes of emotion are “coordinated and balanced by the prefrontal regions.” However, during emergencies behaviors are “determined more by input from the ‘lower’ processing centers of the brainstem, sensory circuits, and limbic structures.” This state “of hyperarousal leads neurologically to the inhibition of higher perceptions and thoughts; more basic somatic and sensory input is favored” (2001, Kindle location 6,511)
Feeling affects and behaviors are linked. Feeling is an interactive state that dynamically initiates survival responses. Bessel van der Kolk MD explains that “we need to register and act on our physical sensations to keep our bodies safe. Realizing we’re cold compels us to put on a sweater; feeling hungry or spacey tells us our blood sugar is low and spurs us to get a snack; the pressure of a full bladder sends us to the bathroom” (2015, location 1,772).
Extreme Emotional Arousal and Attention
Van der Kolk says, “emotion and attention are entirely related to the fundamental business of managing life within the organism. It is not possible to manage life and maintain homeostatic balance without data on the current state of the organism’s body” (location 1,776).
Most stressors don’t require an immediate reaction. We can pause, call upon other cognitive resources, and respond with wisdom, honoring other goals. The wisdom of the window of tolerance fits these situations. When we have time to react, but our bodies are in a heightened arousal state, we may react in harmful ways, damaging rather than helping our futures. We act outside our window of tolerance.
What Does the Window of Tolerance Feel Like?
Graham says that, “when we’re in this window, we’re grounded and centered, neither overreacting to other people or life events nor failing to act at all” (2013, p. 191). She explains that “this is our baseline state of physiological functioning when we’re not frightened, stressed, overtired, or overstimulated” (p. 191).
Last year, I wrote about homeostatic balance. I originally was inclined to equate the window of tolerance to a physiological state of homeostasis. However, this would be incorrect because in homeostasis there is not motivation to act. Life is fine just the way it is. A more accurate comparison would be the concept of allostasis.
Allostasis is a dynamic movement of body states in response to the environment, with physiological reactions appropriate for the context of surrounding events. Siegel puts it this way, “within a given state of mind, we can function in an adaptive manner when we are within a window of tolerance that enables us to respond to our inner and external worlds well—with flexibility and choice” (2012).
The Autonomic Nervous System and the Window of Tolerance
Scientifically, exposure to a threat, trauma, or any stressor stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS), resulting in sympathetic hyperarousal and parasympathetic hypoarousal states. We more commonly refer to these states as fight, flight, submission and freeze.
The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system work in conjunction to create sufficient arousal to navigate life challenges without over reactions that motivate maladaptive responses.
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The sympathetic nervous system is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that mobilizes our bodies to act. Seigel compares the sympathetic branch of the nervous system as our bodies accelerator, mobilizing energy consuming functions to deal with a stressor.
“This system can induce excitatory, arousing, energy-consuming bodily states, which are produced by the activation of…the “sympathetic” branch” (2001). Physiological examples of sympathetic nervous system activation are increases in heart rate, respiration, sweating, and states of alertness.
The sympathetic nervous system uses chemicals like adrenaline to fuel the body and brain to take action. An event activates the sympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system releases chemicals though out the body, preparing organs and muscles to fight or flee (Van der Kolk, 2015).
Parasympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system is compared to the brakes on our body’s arousal system. “The parasympathetic nervous system uses acetylcholine to help regulate basic body functions like digestion, wound healing, and sleep…(2015).
The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system puts the brakes on arousal, slowing the heart down, relaxing muscles, and returning the organism to normal breathing. Key survival functions such as feeding, shelter, and mating depend on the calmer states of being.
Graham explains that the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system has a “deactivating function: it slows us down or even shuts us down to prevent us from moving. When there’s no fear, the parasympathetic branch relaxes us into not moving, as in the deep calm we can experience in some forms of meditation, taking a nap on the beach, and falling asleep after making love” (2013).
Balanced Interaction Between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Branches of our Autonomic Nervous System
The window of tolerance is a healthy interaction between both these branches of the autonomic nervous system helping our system satisfy core needs.
Lawrence Heller and Aline LaPierre wrote that “when the core expressions of the life force are not supported, when they are inadequately responded to or blocked from expression, sympathetic activation in the nervous system increases” (2012).
Bessel van der Kolk explains that “when we’re at our best, these two systems work closely together to keep us in an optimal state of engagement with our environment and with ourselves” (2015).
Murphy wrote that “our conscious experience gives the illusion that our mind operates as an integrated whole. All our synaptic networks appear to converge, giving a realistic view of experience. This image of existence is misleading. The trickery of consciousness disguises the various synaptic networks furiously processing the world as a unified machine, combining information into a neat and orderly package” (2018).
When our bodies are within a window of tolerance we can draw from the environment, learning from our interactions. We are more likely to create healthy narratives of the experience and store helpful memories. We integrate the experience into our developing self.
When we encounter experience outside of our window of tolerance, our memories of the incident our fragmented and chaotic. Van der Kolk wrote, “when we’re triggered into states of hyper- or hypoarousal, we are pushed outside our ‘window of tolerance’—the range of optimal functioning. We become reactive and disorganized…As long as people are either hyperaroused or shut down, they cannot learn from experience” (2015).
Expanding Our Window of Tolerance
Windows of tolerance are not permanent. We can expand our abilities to tolerate discomfort. Biological givens set the stage but we write the play. Understanding our boundaries, triggers, and emotional deficits under pressure we can organize life to minimize damaging events that drag us into the minefields of hypo-or hyperarousal.
However, no matter how structured, life will intrude and knock us out of balance. Graham refers to our ability to quickly return to our window of tolerance as resilience. Graham encouragingly teaches that “losing our equilibrium is normal; recovering our equilibrium is learnable (2013, p. 200).
Graham explains that we can “strengthen the capacity of the prefrontal cortex to regulate the reactivity of the lower brain, with its rapid assessments of potential harm and survival responses of connect — or fight-flight-freeze, submit-collapse” (p. 192). Graham suggests that learning to bring our bodies back into equilibrium is the prelude to healthy problem solving.
Mindful awareness of the somatic happenings occurring within our bodies assists in settling arousal states. We refer to this as somatic intelligence. The executive functions can then collaborate with the feeling states of the body to solve threats or approach opportunities.
Graham explains, “the somatic intelligence that flows from a well-functioning prefrontal cortex allows us to stay calm, stay steady in our wise mind, and deal” (p. 191). She later adds, “once you can use the somatic intelligence of your prefrontal cortex to manage your body’s automatic reactivity to danger or threat and reliably maintain an inner equilibrium, you can act in the world with skill and conscious response-ability” (p. 193).
Heller and LaPierre propose that body knowledge ignites self-perpetuating healing. They wrote that “by paying attention to the body, we are more easily able to recognize the truths and fictions of our personal narrative. As shock states held in the nervous system are discharged, we come into more contact with our body.” We establish a positive cycle “in which the more self-regulated we become, the more we are in touch with our body, and the more in touch with our body we are, the greater our capacity for self-regulation” (2012, Kindle location 387).
Heller and LaPierre continue to explain this cycle writing that “a healing cycle is set in motion in which nervous system regulation increases and distorted identifications and beliefs diminish and eventually resolve. In a positive healing cycle, the increasing nervous system regulation helps dissolve painful identifications, and as painful identifications and judgments dissolve, increasing capacity for self-regulation becomes possible” (Kindle location 396).
Self-Knowledge Key to Remaining Within Our Window Of Tolerance
Knowing our personal proclivities for reacting, we can preplan avenues for healthy response. We can preplan with a partner to give space for recovering equilibrium when disagreements spark hyperarousal.
Breathing exercise amazingly brings the sympathetic branch of the nervous system down, allowing for calmness to return.
Others are also a valuable resource. Dyadic regulation is the process of the calmness of one person can help calm another person. We see this as a mother soothes her crying child. The mothers resilience and calmness brings the child back into a window of tolerance. Others provide a invaluable resource for regulating emotions. We must create bonds with healthy others.
By repeatedly succeeding at repairing ruptures to our window of tolerance, soothing our system, or arousing an under responsive system, we gain confidence on our capacity to regulate emotions. And confidence breeds confidence. We learn to manage life within our window of tolerance, wisely calming our system when events outweigh our resources.
Corrigan, F., Fisher, J., & Nutt, D. (2010). Autonomic dysregulation and the Window of Tolerance model of the effects of complex emotional trauma . Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(1), 17-25.
Graham, Linda (2013). Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. New World Library; 1st edition
Heller, L., LaPierre A. (2012) Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition
Murphy, T. Franklin (2014) Emotional Overload. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-2014. Accessed 4-18-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2018) Integrating Emotions. Psychology Fanatic. Published 12-2018. Accessed 4-21-2022.
Rabey, M., & Moloney, N. (2022). “I Don’t Know why I’ve Got this Pain!” Allostasis as a Possible Explanatory Model. Physical Therapy, Advance Article, 1-1.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2001). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; First edition
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Third Printing Used edition
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Reprint edition