The window of tolerance refers to a zone of "emotional arousal that is optimal for well-being and effective functioning," (Siegel, 1999).
When we are within our window of tolerance, we are able to effectively cope with, process, and integrate emotional arousal. However, when we are outside our window of tolerance, we are unable to complete these essential functions.
The window of tolerance is often referred to in literature about trauma. Remember, "trauma" refers to a very broad range of experiences, not just extreme experiences. We have all experienced situations that are harmful and have overwhelmed our system, and we all deal with them in different ways. I would encourage you to embrace a broad definition of "trauma" and not rationalize or dismiss your experiences. People who have experienced trauma often experience too much arousal (hyperarousal) or too little arousal (hypoarousal), and commonly vacillate between the two. In addition, everyone has a different sized window of tolerance. Some people seem able to handle a wide variety of challenges with ease, whereas others get overwhelmed more easily.
Again, when we are inside our window of tolerance, we are able to process and integrate our experiences and utilize our coping skills. Hyperarousal is similar to the "fight or flight" response regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. People who are hyperourased often experience anxiety, may be hypervigilant, and/or suffer from dysregulated emotions. During hyperarousal we may shake, run away, fight, feel our heart pounding, experience tension in our body, and have racing thoughts. Extreme hyperarousal may be experienced as a panic attack. On the other hand, hypoarousal is similar to the "freeze" response regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. During hypoarousal we may shrink or hide, feel our heart slowing down or a heaviness in our body, feel numb or empty, and "tune out" what is going on around us. Extreme hypoarousal may be experienced as dissociation.
The first goal in working with the window of tolerance is to simply gain awareness. As we become more aware of where we are in or outside our window of tolerance, we can begin to develop strategies to help us stay within our window, or return to our window if we are outside of it. Awareness is important because there are different tools we can utilize depending on whether we are hyperaroused or hypoaroused. This is what I have found to be incredibly helpful in my recovery work. Identifying where I am within or outside of my window helps me to utilize my coping skills more effectively.
The following are some questions to help you gain awareness of your window of tolerance...
What does it feel like to be inside the window of tolerance? What affects where you are in the window? What pushes you outside of the window, both internal and external influences? How do you know when you are outside of your window? What does it feel like when you are hyperaroused? What does it feel like when you are hypoaroused? How have you brought yourself back into the window of tolerance when you were hyperaroused? How have you brought yourself back into the window of tolerance when you were hypoaroused? How wide do you think your window of tolerance is? For example, when you are experiencing slight hyper or hypoarousal, can you still utilize positive coping skills? Do you fluctuate up and down easily, or does it take a lot for you to experience more or less arousal? Can you recognize any patterns of when you become hyperaroused and hypoaroused? Do you tend to experience one more than the other?