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What Is the Window of Tolerance, and Why Is It So Important?

Developing "window of tolerance" is especially critical for trauma survivors.

Key points

  • The Window of Tolerance is a helpful and important nervous system regulation concept.
  • Everyone's window looks a little different depending on their personality, background, and a host of other factors.
  • Expanding one's Window of Tolerance is often a critical task for relational trauma survivors.

The Window of Tolerance is a term coined by Daniel J. Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, to describe the optimal emotional “zone” we can exist in, to best function and thrive in everyday life.

On either side of the “optimal zone” are two other zones: the hyper-arousal zone and the hypo-arousal zone.

The Window of Tolerance—the optimal zone—is characterized by a sense of groundedness, flexibility, openness, curiosity, presence, an ability to be emotionally regulated, and a capacity to tolerate life’s stressors.

If this window is eclipsed—if you experience internal or external stressors that cause you to move beyond and outside of it—you may find yourself existing in either a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state. Hyperarousal is an emotional state characterized by high energy, anger, panic, irritability, anxiety, hypervigilance, overwhelm, chaos, fight-or-flight instincts, and startle response (to name just a few characteristics). Hypoarousal, by contrast, is an emotional state characterized by shutting down, numbness, depressiveness, withdrawal, shame, flat affect, and disconnection (to name but a few characteristics).

Why is the Window of Tolerance so important?

Put plainly, existing within the Window of Tolerance is what allows us to move functionally and relationally through the world.

When we’re within our window, we have access to our prefrontal cortex and executive functioning skills (organizing, planning, and prioritizing complex tasks; starting actions and projects and staying focused on them to completion; regulating emotions and practicing self-control; practicing good time management). Having access to our executive functions equips us to work, be in relationships, and problem-solve effectively as we move through the world, despite encountering hiccups, disappointments, and challenges.

When we are outside the Window of Tolerance, we lose access to our prefrontal cortex and executive skills and may default to taking panicked, reckless action or no action at all. We may be prone to self-sabotaging behaviors, gravitating toward patterns and choices that erode and undermine our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world.

Clearly, then, it’s ideal to stay inside the Window of Tolerance to best support ourselves in living the most functional, healthy life possible. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all of us—at every age—sometimes eclipse our Window of Tolerance and find ourselves in a non-ideal emotional regulation zone sometimes.

That’s normal and natural.

So the goal here is not that we never eclipse our Window of Tolerance; I personally and professionally think that that’s unrealistic. Rather, the goal is to expand our Window of Tolerance and to grow our capacity to “rebound and be resilient”—coming back to our window quickly and effectively when we find ourselves outside it.

How do we increase our Window of Tolerance?

I want to acknowledge that the Window of Tolerance is subjective. We each have a unique and distinct window depending on multiple biopsychosocial variables: our personal histories and whether or not we came from childhood trauma backgrounds, our temperaments, our social supports, our physiology, etc. No two windows will look exactly the same; mine may not look the same as yours and so forth.

Because of this, I want to acknowledge that those who come from relational trauma histories may find that they have smaller windows than peers who come from non-trauma backgrounds. Those of us with childhood abuse histories may find, too, that we are more frequently and easily triggered and pushed outside of the optimal emotional regulation zone into hyper- or hypoarousal. This is normal and natural, given what we’ve lived through.

And everyone—whether or not they come from a relational trauma history or not—will need to work and expend effort to support themselves to stay inside their Window of Tolerance and will need to practice resiliency when they find themselves outside it.

It just may mean that those with relational trauma histories may have to work harder, longer, and more deliberately at this.

So again, recognizing that our windows are unique and we all need to invest effort into staying inside of it, how do we do this? In my personal and professional experience, this work is two-fold:

First, we provide ourselves with the foundational biopsychosocial elements that contribute to a healthy, regulated nervous system.

Second, we work to cultivate and call upon a wide range of tools when we find ourselves outside of our window (which, again, is inevitable).

The first part of the work—providing ourselves with the foundational biopsychosocial elements that contribute to a healthy, regulated nervous system—may entail:

  • Providing our body with supportive self-care: getting enough sleep, getting enough exercise, eating nutritious foods, refraining from substances that erode our health, and being attending to emergent medical needs.
  • Providing our minds with supportive experiences. This may include adequate amounts of stimulation, adequate amounts of focus and engagement, adequate amounts of rest, and spaciousness and play.
  • Providing ourselves with supportive experiences: of being in a connected relationship, of being connected to something bigger than ourselves (this could be spirituality but can also be nature).
  • Tending to our physical environment to set ourselves up for success: Living and working in places and ways that reduce stressors instead of increasing them; designing the external environments of our lives to be as nourishing (and not depleting) as possible.

The second part of the work is how we practice resiliency and rebound when we find ourselves in hyper- or hypo-arousal zones. We do this work by developing practices, habits, tools, and internalized and externalized resources that help soothe, regulate, redirect, and ground ourselves.

Explore Psychology Today’s Therapist Directory to find a trauma-informed therapist to help you personally.

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