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What is 'Window of Tolerance'? emotional regulation model explained

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

The concept of ‘Window of Tolerance’ comes from the work of Dan Siegel and is utilised in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy as well as other trauma therapy approaches.

Basically, the Window of Tolerance describes the range or ‘bandwidth’ in which we feel at our most optimum. When we are within our individual range we feel cool, calm and collected and are able to self-regulate and calm our emotional state. We feel safe, trusting and connected - balanced and well. When we are outside of our window of tolerance however, we can quickly find ourselves in a more or even very dysregulated emotional and cognitive state.

What is the Window of Tolerance - stress and trauma response explained
Window of Tolerance traffic light system

If we are above the window of tolerance bandwidth, we are effectively in amber zone hyper-arousal - this is where our nervous system is in a highly stressed and activated state.

An activated nervous system is as much a physiological shift as it is psychological or emotional. This is the ‘fight or flight’ zone - where all evolutionary and primitive survival systems within mind and body are fired up to respond; to survive - either stay and fight or to flee any real or perceived threat. There are a number of key physiological and biochemical changes that happen quite rapidly within a hyper-aroused state. These include things like; a racing heart, sweating, and effects of the instant release of adrenalin and cortisol, such as speedy thinking, anxiety or feeling ‘pumped’. A hyper-aroused state is essentially a primitive survival state, designed to occur in the short-term at times of threat or danger. The effects of sympathetic nervous system activation are there to basically help keep us alive! Many mental health issues, stress, anxiety, as well as a range of stress-related physical health problems occur though when we remain in a hyper-aroused state for too long. Stress and trauma and the busy pace of modern day living are enough to keep us living mostly in this zone - highlighting the importance and necessity of proper rest.

Dropping below the window of tolerance is when we are in hypo-arousal. This is the red stop zone synonymous with a ‘freeze’ response. In the animal kingdom, this relates to species that may freeze or feign-death in order to survive. For humans, we are more likely to feel emotionally or physically disconnected or dissociative, numb or perhaps highly fatigued. This zone is also when we might continue to run on ‘auto-pilot’ and also feel quite shut down. If we fall below our window of tolerance this is when we most likely feel overwhelmed, feel like we can’t cope and that we just want to take to bed.

You might recognise all three main zones or feel more familiar with one or two. Needless to say, being within the window of tolerance is the nicest place to be! That’s the green zone of health, happiness and healing.

When we are highly stressed, anxious or have unresolved trauma our window of tolerance can get very narrow. The W.O.T. is pretty much a bandwidth. When we are tired, not taking good care of ourselves, are over-worked, over-stressed, triggered or traumatised then our window of tolerance becomes narrower and narrower. At this point, it doesn’t then take much to drift or even be immediately catapulted outside of your window of tolerance to either amber or red zone.

So essentially, what can be helpful is first of all familiarising yourself with the W.O.T. model and use mindful awareness to recognise where you are at, ideally catch any warning signs of when you might be shifting into a less desirable state. Perhaps more importantly, it can be very helpful to practise ways in which to expand your own window of tolerance so you have a much wider bandwidth to rest within.

Ways to expand the window of tolerance include:

  • Regular practise of slow, deep, calming breathing exercises to help calm and regulate the nervous system and mind.

  • Mindfulness practise.

  • Grounding or centering meditations or techniques.

  • DBT self-soothing & emotional regulation skills practice.

  • Good self-care and self-compassion. In other words… being kind and gentle and loving with yourself. (Many people find it a lot easier to be nicer to other people than to themselves. It might take a bit of practice).

Calming a hyper-aroused state:

When we find ourselves in a hyper-aroused stated it can be helpful to think about putting the breaks on this state escalating any further and instead find techniques that settle the nervous system, mind and body. Ways to try to bring yourself back to within the window of tolerance from the amber zone hyper-aroused state include:

  • Mindful awareness. This means you just notice what is happening in the present moment, in an objective and non-judgemental way. Note any thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, urges, etc. Mindful attention and practice can really help us to create a bit of distance from intense emotional or psychological experiences and so supports us to feel calmer.

  • Breathe. When in a hyper-aroused state our nervous system is ramped up so chances are we are not breathing properly. Instead we are probably breathing more rapidly and/or shallowly. Take some slow and deep breaths. Count the breaths. Exhaling for twice the length of the inhalation is an effective breathing technique to help calm and settle the nervous system within just a few minutes. Focus on breathing in this way for at least 5-6 minutes - that can be enough to feel closer to or move back to within your W.O.T.

  • Get present. Usually when trauma is triggered or when we are feeling highly stressed or anxious we psychologically ‘time-travel’. Trauma and stress have no sense of time, so when they’re active, parts of us are back in the past or jumping to the future catastrophising and with a whole array of ‘what ifs’. Take a look around, focus on where you feel your feet touching the ground. Ground yourself in the present. Remind yourself that ‘right here, right now’ you can be OK.

  • Reach out to somebody. Phone a trusted friend or family member or professional. Talk things through with somebody you feel safe with.

  • Self-soothe. Gently bring awareness to sensations you notice within and in your body, then focus and send slow and deep breaths to those areas to help you to let go and ease any tensions or contractions.

  • Listen to some calming, soothing music.

  • Sometimes it can be more helpful to shift through ‘charge’ in the system by ways of letting feelings come up and out. This might include working out, going for a run, screaming or punching a pillow,

  • Reassure yourself. Mentally speak to yourself in a kind and compassionate way.

  • Move. Get out for a walk or do some kind of rhythmic movement like jogging, swimming, yoga or tai chi.

Shifting from a hypo-aroused state:

Shifting from a hypo-aroused, freeze or numbed state tends to require getting more active, shaking things up and stimulating the system.

Some ideas for increasing arousal from a hypo-arousal state include:

  • Mindfulness and body-awareness techniques. Tap, squeeze or massage parts of the body mindfully, noticing any sensations at all.

  • Get up, move and activate the body. Walk, stretch, jump, dance, swim, exercise… etc. Push-ups or squats can be especially helpful to get the body moving and more energised.

  • Stimulate the senses. (For example, I find the smell of coffee quite stimulating). Use scent (any non-triggering smell), touch (try touching different textures or parts of your body), sight (look around you and name all the things you can see), sound (listen to some uplifting music) or taste (strong tasting or crunchy foods) to awaken the brain in a way that helps shift away from red zone hypo-arousal numbness or dissociation.

  • Try and get outside. Breath in the fresh air. Take deep, energising breaths. Basically feel more energised and activated by getting more oxygen.

  • Walk bare foot. Ideally walk on grass. This can be a great technique to feel connected to the earth as well as stimulate the nerve endings in the feet.

Have a play around with different techniques to find the ones you like or that work best for you. The more you practice these, the easier you will find it when it comes to times you need to use them. Mind-body awareness, mindfulness practices, breath-work and yoga are all helpful ways to help calm and balance the nervous system. Hopefully this helps you be able to manage different stress states a little more, and hopefully get to spend more and more time within the Window of Tolerance - which is a much more enjoyable and pleasant place to be.

Dr. Sarah Davies - holistic counselling psychologist and author of ‘Never Again - moving on from narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationships’. You can also find guided meditations on Insight Timer here:

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