Your ‘window of tolerance' is the zone where you function best. Learn about how it works and why mental health can play a role.
Ever reacted so strongly to a stressful situation that you felt you weren’t fully in control? It can be pretty disconcerting. You might even think back on it all and wonder what happened to you in that moment.
Maybe you lost your temper at work, got totally overwhelmed in a social setting, or froze during a conflict and found yourself unable to react? It is as if certain situations just push your buttons, causing all your usual ways of coping to fly out of the window.
So what exactly happens to you in these moments? And what can you do about it in the future?
When you find yourself reacting to stressful situations with irritability, panic or rage — or alternatively, by becoming numb, disconnected or frozen — you have likely stepped outside of what’s known as your ‘window of tolerance’. Essentially, this is the term that we use to describe the state where you are able to function best and even thrive.
But when you are pushed outside of your window into a situation that is personally overwhelming to you, then it could feel as if your responses have somehow been ‘hijacked’. This can happen to any of us and is a normal experience, but for some people it can happen quite frequently, causing them a lot of pain and suffering. However, if this is the case with you then the good news is that you can definitely do something about it.
So let’s take a look at how the window of tolerance actually works, what might cause yours to narrow, and how you can go about widening it in order to become more resilient to stressors.
The term ‘window of tolerance’ was first coined by psychiatrist Dan Siegel in his book The Developing Mind. He believed that our individual window could be influenced by our early childhood relationships. This is because we initially learn how to manage our emotions through our relationship with our parents. So for instance, if your parents became irritated or dismissive when you got anxious, then you might have taken on board the idea that anxiety was shameful or unacceptable. And when you are confronted by situations that make you anxious as an adult, this could push you outside of your window of tolerance. This is because you were never taught how to healthily process this feeling as a child.
In other words, because everyone’s early experiences are different, everyone’s window of tolerance is different. This means that what is highly distressing to one person might not have much of an effect on another. That said, a person’s childhood isn’t the only factor and your own unique window of tolerance can also be influenced by temperament, biology, trauma, mental health, emotional regulation, environmental influences, support networks, current life circumstances, resilience and coping skills.
But what causes us to be pushed outside of our window of tolerance? In fact, lots of things can cause it, including toxic work environments or big life events like bereavement, divorce or being diagnosed with an illness. However, it is also important to note that things that might seem ‘small’ on the surface can also push people outside of their own window, for instance, a friend not replying to a text. This is because, for some of us, the experience of being ignored might have a very negative association going all the way back into their early years.
Your window will also be different in different situations and under different conditions, so you might have a wide window in some situations and a narrow one in others. For instance, your window of tolerance might be fairly wide for working to strict deadlines and you might be pretty resilient to the pressures of this. But on the other hand, your window might be narrower for people criticising you at work and you even find that you get angry when they do. Why are these two windows different? Why are you calm in one type of situation and aggravated in another?
Again, this can be due to a range of factors but one reason could be that you grew up in a home where you were criticised a lot by your parents. This means that you have a narrow window for dealing with criticism as it triggers deep shame in you, while being under pressure at work doesn’t have any associated triggers.
So again, it is more helpful to think of your window as being variable across different situations and trigger points. It can also be different at different points in the day, so loud music playing outside at 5am might get a different reaction from you than it does at 5pm. It is also important not to judge our own windows of tolerance, because what might be small to others might feel significant to us and for very good reasons.
When you are within your window of tolerance, you can process information well, reflect on situations, think rationally, make calm decisions and solve problems, as well as experience and regulate your emotional experiences. In other words, inside of this window it is much easier to face the challenges of everyday life without too much difficulty. Also, when you are within your window, your social engagement systems are active, which just means that you are able to connect much better to yourself, others and the present moment. In this state, you can experience harmony and flow. And while you might also experience intense emotions, you can do so while still being able to think clearly and access healthy coping strategies.
Leaving your window of tolerance
We’ve talked about how, when you move into a state of excess stress, you can be pushed outside of your window of tolerance. In fact, this stress state can be split into two categories known as ‘hyper-arousal’ (Fight / Flight) and ‘hypo-arousal’ (Freeze). Both are a form of emotional dysregulation that can cause us to feel ‘hijacked’ by our nervous system.
Essentially, when we are in a situation that is stressful to us, the amygdala (the survival part of our brain) does a quick assessment of whether there’s a threat. If so, it moves us into the Fight, Flight or Freeze response in order to keep us safe.
When this happens, the more rational and reasoning region of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) shuts down, which is why you can sometimes feel like another part of you has ‘taken over’. In essence, you have basically gone into survival mode and in some circumstances, where there is a real threat and a quick reaction is required, this is essential. The problem only arises when you find yourself slipping into this state regularly or when there isn’t necessarily a real or immediate danger. One example might be feeling panicked when you are around people who remind you of an abusive ex-partner.
Whether you go into a hyper or hypo-arousal reaction can depend on the specific situation and your brain’s interpretation of it. However, some people have a tendency towards one or the other, or may swing between both states.
The hyper-arousal state (feeling too much)
When you’re in a situation where your emotional arousal has increased, you start to edge to the top of your window of tolerance. You lose the capacity to think rationally and can feel taken over by automatic survival response, moving out of your window into a hyper-aroused (Fight / Flight) state.
When we are in this state, we become over-stimulated to a distressing degree. We become flooded by emotions and our thinking goes offline. This can cause us to feel restless, anxious, panicked, agitated, angry, chaotic, hypervigilant or have racing thoughts. You could also find that you are very critical of yourself or others or might even find that you lose your temper completely. You could also experience an overwhelming impulse to leave a stressful situation straight away, for instance your workplace or a social event. In extreme hyper-arousal you could even feel as if your surroundings and other people are somehow dreamlike or ‘unreal’ (known as derealisation).
People who move into hyper-arousal regularly might find that they are very emotionally reactive, which can cause them to have unstable relationships with others or struggle to hold down jobs. They might also have to deal with flashbacks, insomnia and nightmares, as well a feeling of always being ‘on’ and alert to danger. They could also be affected by perfectionism and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
The hypo-arousal state (feeling too little)
When we are in hypo-arousal (Freeze), we have dropped out of the bottom of our window of tolerance by shutting down and switching off our emotions. This can cause us to disconnect from our surroundings and other people, to various degrees. So in this state, you might find that you feel weak, tired, sluggish, lacking in motivation, spaced out, distracted, numb, overwhelmed or depressed. You could also feel oddly ‘paralysed’, as if you just can’t bring yourself to leave your sofa or bed. In extreme versions of hypo-arousal you could feel as if you are disconnected from yourself or your body, as if you are somehow watching yourself from a distance (known as depersonalisation).
People who fall into hypo-arousal on a regular basis might find themselves hiding from the world and others, often losing themselves in things like TV, gaming or social media for hours on end. They might also experience memory issues and seem ‘shut down’ to others, or could spend long periods of time daydreaming in a way that might not feel completely in their control.
As we have explored, everyone’s window of tolerance is different and can also differ depending on the situation. But if you find yourself in hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal regularly (or swinging between the two), then this could be a sign that you have a narrow window of tolerance. Another way of putting this is that your resilience to stressors is low, making you vulnerable to sudden changes and challenges.
Having a narrow window means that there is a small band in which emotions feel tolerable to you. You might find that you are easily thrown off balance, shifting quickly into hyper or hypo-arousal. This can be very destabilising and make life more difficult to navigate, causing issues like emotional avoidance, rocky relationships and other problems. You might feel as if your emotions are overly intense, that you are very sensitive to certain situations or that you sometimes have ‘hair-trigger’ reactions to things.
A narrow window of tolerance can be caused by a number of issues, including:
— ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).
— Chronic stress.
— A high stress workplace.
— An absence of support / secure relationships.
— Experiences of discrimination / marginalisation.
— Being in an environment where your emotions are dismissed.
— Temporary factors like sleep deprivation, exhaustion, hunger or a work deadline.
People who have experienced a difficult childhood or shocking events in adulthood will often have developed a narrower window. Partly this can be because the energy you put into managing the after-effects of trauma can leave you feeling depleted and unable to face other life stresses. Yet it is also because trauma by its very nature can result in having a narrowed window of tolerance. So having a condition like PTSD or C-PTSD might mean that you move in and out of Flight / Fight / Freeze regularly (and perhaps even several times a day).
Thankfully, with time, care and the right toolkit of strategies, you can actually widen your window of tolerance. Essentially, you can do this by learning to observe, manage and regulate your emotions, so that you can cope with challenges and stresses better. Taking care of yourself so that you are not tired, hungry or in pain all help too.
Short-term strategies for dealing with hyper-arousal (feeling too much)
Managing hyper-arousal (fight / flight) is about lowering your emotional arousal levels to bring yourself into a state of calm. Ways to do this include:
— Breathwork or other mindfulness practices.
— Taking a gentle walk in nature.
— Reassure yourself that emotions are natural and have a beginning, middle and end.
— Ground yourself using all 5 of your senses.
— Express how you’re feeling through journaling or being creative.
Short-term strategies for dealing with hypo-arousal (feeling too little)
Managing hypo-arousal is about raising your arousal levels to bring yourself into a more stimulated state. Ways to do this include:
— Move your body through walking, exercising, dancing or doing yoga.
— Name three objects you can see starting with a certain letter of the alphabet.
— Listen to upbeat music.
— Eating spicy or flavoursome foods.
— Warm yourself up with a shower or use a heat pack.
Longer term strategies for widening your window of tolerance
Developing better emotional regulation, self-soothing and grounding skills can make a big difference to your window of tolerance. One of the best routes to building your skills in these areas — and becoming more emotionally resilient as a result — is to see a good therapist.
Therapy offers a safe connection with a non-judgemental person in a protected space. And in this space, you can explore the various causes and effects of narrowed windows of tolerance in your life. As well as this, some therapies can help you to actively process distressing experiences from the past, so that you can finally integrate them and they can no longer trigger you.
Every kind of therapy can help you to widen your window of tolerance in some way, it just depends on which approach is best for you. One option is Mindfulness Therapy, which can teach you how to stay grounded in your body in times of distress, then observe your reactions and steer your responses so that you can avoid slipping into Fight / Flight / Freeze. Another option is CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which can help you to identify unhelpful ways of thinking (cognitive distortions) that could push you outside of your window of tolerance, for instance, ‘catastrophising’ (imagining the worst possible outcome of a scenario).
Or if you have issues with emotional dysregulation — your emotions are intense and changeable — then DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) might be a good option, as it can help you to manage your feelings more effectively and build your tolerance for difficult situations. With DBT, you can learn valuable skills in mindfulness, distress tolerance and emotional regulation, which can be a powerful toolkit for navigating future stressors. Just as importantly, DBT strongly encourages self-acceptance, which is crucial if you often feel ashamed — or shamed by others — for ways that you behave when you are outside of your window of tolerance.
Finally, if you think that you have a narrowed window of tolerance due to trauma, both EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help you to explore the root causes of your triggers, then process them in a supportive environment and let them go.
We all have moments where we feel ‘hijacked’, causing us to react in ways that we normally wouldn’t. And for some of us those moments can be more frequent, causing our lives and relationships to feel out of control at times.
But the good news is that help is definitely out there. By practising self-compassion, learning new coping strategies and getting support from a therapist, you can learn to widen your window of tolerance. And as a result, you will feel stronger, calmer and more resilient in the face of the challenges that life can throw at us.
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