When someone cuts you off in traffic or confronts you about a mistake, how do you react? Do you accept the situation with grace and move on with your day? Or do you get angry and yell, try to escape, or withdraw into yourself?
If you always overreact or shut down when you’re faced with even minor stressors, you might be living within a narrow window of tolerance. To learn more about what the window of tolerance is, its relationship to trauma, and how it can help you regulate your emotional responses, keep reading.
What Is the Window of Tolerance?
The window of tolerance is a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel in his 1999 book, The Developing Mind. It refers to the zone of arousal (emotional space) where you function optimally. Inside your window of tolerance, you can take in information from your environment and respond to it healthily, without withdrawing or feeling overwhelmed.
If you’re forced out of your window of tolerance by a traumatic event like sexual assault or abuse, you may experience hyper or hypo arousal. Entering these abnormal states of arousal kept us safe in primitive times, but today, they can cause debilitating mental health issues.
Hyper-Arousal: Fight or Flight Response
A state of hyper-arousal is often called the fight-or-flight response. This is the extreme urge to either escape from a problem or confront it head-on. Someone experiencing hyper-arousal might present with:
- Racing thoughts
- Overwhelming anxiety
- Chaotic or impulsive outbursts
- Rage or anger
- Obsessions and compusions
- Substance abuse or addictions
- Feeling out of control
However, not all people actively respond to trauma with fight-or-flight—some shut down instead.
Hypo-Arousal: Freeze Response
A state of hypo-arousal, also called a freeze response, is another common response to trauma. Hypo-arousal can present as:
- A feeling of being “outside” the present moment (dissociation)
- Running on auto-pilot
- Feeling flat or separated from your emotions
- A feeling of paralysis or physical immobility
- Zoning out
- Memory loss
- Losing track of time
According to Dr. Peter Levine, the freeze response is a result of “locked up” tension and energy that must be released before you can re-enter your window of tolerance. This energy can stay locked up for years unless you take specific action to release it.
Understanding the Window of Tolerance and Increasing Emotional Regulation
As you’re going through everyday life, are you plagued by the constant feeling that the world is unsafe? According to Dr. Siegel, your “…internal reality is […] constructed by the brain as it interacts with the environment in the present, in the context of its past experiences and expectancies of the future.” This internal reality guides your automatic responses to good, bad, and neutral events.
The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain responsible for making decisions, limiting risks, and otherwise regulating this internal reality. Going through severe or repeated trauma can actually retrain your prefrontal cortex to view everything as a threat, resulting in a narrow window of tolerance and less ability to integrate information.
Thankfully, through mindfulness, grounding, and other techniques, you can teach your brain and nervous system to remain calm under stress. Participating in trauma-informed counseling and yoga therapy can both help with releasing the trapped energy from past traumas.
Healing from a Traumatic Event and Prioritizing Your Mental Health
Understanding your window of tolerance is one of the first steps toward living a life where you feel safe, capable, and in control of your emotions.
If you often find yourself living outside your window of tolerance, you could benefit from seeing a therapist at Modern Intimacy who takes a trauma-informed approach to mental health treatment. To set up your free, confidential 30-minute consultation, contact our office online or by phone today. While you’re at it, take a look at the free downloadable worksheets on our resources page to learn more about your mental health.