Window of Tolerance

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The window of tolerance is the space in which an individual is able to function most effectively. When our coping mechanisms are overwhelmed we jump outside our window. Individuals who battle issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (among other presenting issues) typically have a more narrow window of tolerance- that is seemingly small stressors may take the individual outside their window. When we are outside of our window of tolerance we go one of two ways, and we can vasalate between these two directions.


If someone is hyper-aroused, no new learning can take place because their system is overwhelmed and hyper-active. Imagine a wind up toy being overly wound up- it may hit a nearby wall, but the wheels continue to rapidly spin. Hyper-arousal is the direction in which one may exhibit the following reactions:

  • excessive anger and aggression
  • the “fight or flight” response
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • shaking/tremors
  • racing/chaotic thoughts
  • impulsivity
  • blame
  • denial
  • anxiety
  • hyper-vigilance (increased awareness and sensitivity to surroundings- may frequently scan the environment expecting hidden dangers or threats)
  • emotional reactivity


If someone is hypo-aroused, no new learning can take place because their ability to be present in the here and now has been hijacked. Imagine how a computer responds when you open up too many tabs- it stops functioning and freezes because it cannot process the high volume of information. It then requires some kind of intervention or the closing of tabs to re-calibrate. Hypo-arousal is the direction in which one may exhibit the following reactions:

  • mind spacey or zoned out
  • the “freeze” response
  • overly compliant
  • memory issues
  • emotional and or physical numbness
  • withdrawal/disconnection
  • shut down
  • lethargy
  • feeling absent/ on “auto-pilot”
  • flat affect
  • dissociated (see future post on dissociation)
  • inability to think clearly/disabled cognitive processing

What does it look like within the window of tolerance?

Within the window of tolerance one can regulate their emotions and self-soothe. The individual is oriented to the present moment, or has an awareness of the here and now. They are able to think clearly and have an awareness of their feelings simultaneously. The individual has a sense of safety, and can give and receive empathy. Some characteristics of someone within their window of tolerance include:

  • calm
  • engaged
  • connected
  • able to make decisions not based entirely on feeling state (feelings are processed and influence decisions, but do not drive decision making
  • grounded/stable
  • curious/open
  • assertive
  • flexible/adaptable
  • sense of control and options
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So how do I widen my window of tolerance?

If you are hyper-aroused it may help to allow your body to move. For instance, for those who experience tremors, try to not restrict the tremors and instead intensify them. If your hands are slightly shaking make large movements with your hands and arms. If necessary, move your entire body for as long as it feels right to. Then intentionally slow your movements down. If you can make things bigger, you can make them smaller. This usually results in slower and clearer thinking. If one of your behaviors is impulsivity, then set a boundary of time before you make a decision. For example: “I will not respond to the message until one hour has passed.” “I will wait 24 hours and see if I still feel the same way about this issue as I do now.” This allows time to cool down and ensure you are not making a decision out of a temporary feeling.

If you are hypo-aroused it will be helpful to do a grounding or mindfulness exercise to engage your mind and body in the present moment. A popular tool is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Notice 5 things you can see and say these 5 things out loud, notice 4 things you can touch and feel the textures of each 4 things, notice 3 things you can hear, notice 2 things you can smell, and notice 1 thing you can taste. This exercise engages your 5 senses to help you to feel more present.

Emotional regulation tools will be beneficial for either type of arousal. These may include: progressive muscle relaxation, box breathing, breathe in a positive message and breathe out what is distressing you (for example: on the in-breath you may say internally “I am capable” and on the out-breath you may say “I breathe out any self-doubt,” yoga/stretching, journaling, walking outside, or even taking a drink of water or having a mint (salivation illicits a relaxation response as it involves the parasympathetic nervous system).

For prevention to jumping outside your window: SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE, SELF-CARE. The thing you do to recharge and pour into yourself on Saturday will not maintain you until the following Thursday. Do you charge your phone every evening? Even if it has not lost all of its charge from today? For most of us the answer is, yes. We continually plug in the charger because we may not know how long it will be before we can charge it again, or we may use up the battery more on one day versus another. The stressors of life are inevitable. We need to recharge ourselves consistently, so we can face life’s battles energized and well-resourced.

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-One final note-

Did you know if your window of tolerance for distress is narrow that your tolerance for positive emotions is also narrow??? This means you will encounter barriers to fully experiencing joy, peace, cheer, pleasure, play, excitement, compliments and encouragement from others, amusement, inspiration, affection, hope and more.

Take a look at these DSM-5 criteria for the following presenting issues:

Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar I and II: markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all activities most of the day, nearly every day, feelings of worthlessness.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD): feelings of hopelessness or self-deprecating thoughts, decreased interest in usual activities.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world, markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): chronic feelings of emptiness

Finally, though not within the diagnostic criteria, anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) can result from other presenting issues such as Anorexia Nervosa, substance and alcohol abuse-related disorders, Anxiety-related disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and more.

The only way to the other side is through.

Helen Keller

To widen your window of tolerance for positivity and pleasure, you must widen your window for processing distress. Be encouraged! You are well able, capable, resilient, strong, and created to go “through”! Equipping yourself with emotional regulation tools and self-care will serve you well on your journey.