Window Of Tolerance; A Guide to Understanding and Expanding your Window of Tolerance for Coping and Emotion Regulation


Our “window of tolerance” can be defined as one’s ability to tolerate distress in the environment/situations. When an individual is within their window of tolerance, they are able to practice optimal problem solving, access logical thinking skills, regulate emotions effectively, able to access optimal alertness even with some pressure and stress, and mindfulness. Our window of tolerance can grow or shrink depending on one’s environment and frequency of being exposed to stressful events or trauma. Basically, the more we encounter stress or are exposed to consistent traumatic events, the smaller and smaller our window can become ; this can make it very difficult to navigate or function within our everyday lives where even the tiniest of disruption in our environment can send us into either a state of panic or numbness/shut down. 

How do you know if you are out of your window of tolerance?

When our window shrinks, it doesn’t take much for one to jump out of that window of tolerance and into either the hyperarousal or hypoarousal windows. 

  • Hyperarousal can look like:
    •  Increase in anxiety
    •  Increase in body temperature/sweating
    •  Increase in heart rate
    •  Feeling out of control
    •  Tunnel vision
    •  Difficulty concentrating
    •  Fast speech
    •  Feelings of being overwhelmed
    •  Feeling panicky

  • Hypoarousal can look like:
    • Feeling frozen or stuck
    • Zoning out
    • Numbness
    • Dissociating
    • Poor circulation in the body/cold temperature 
    • Indecisiveness 
    • Slow speech
    • Lethargic
    • Lack of motivation

How to Grow Your Window:

The good news is that we all have the ability to grow our window of tolerance! Of course this takes practice and support from your therapist and other supports in one’s life, but it is possible with practice and consistency of expanding your coping skill toolbox. 

Some helpful coping skills one can utilize include: 

For Hyperarousal :

  • Taking a cold shower
  • Going for a mindful walk or run
  • Restorative yoga postures (i.e. child’s pose, forward fold)
  • Four square breathing or belly breathing
  • Holding a frozen orange or ice cube
  • Engaging the 5 senses to distract yourself from intense sensations in the body (5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste)

For Hypoarousal:

  • Taking a warm bath
  • Lighting an essential oil candle or diffuser 
  • Shaking 
  • More active yoga postures (i.e. heart openers, mountain  pose, twists)
  • Engaging the 5 senses (5,4,3,2,1 technique) to reorient the body and brain to the environment
  • Petting a furry friend at home
  • Going for a walk while listening to your favorite playlist 

Be Patient With Yourself:

Although very possible to do, It can be challenging and scary to become more aware of when our body jumps out of our window of tolerance. Remind yourself that your body is just trying to protect you…it just needs a little help remembering that you are not living in your past experiences or trauma. Be gentle and remember to bring some self compassion towards yourself when rewiring the nervous system. Remind yourself that you and your body are not “broken” or something that “needs to be fixed”; rather, you are just learning how to make your nervous system and body feel safe again.

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