Understanding Your Window of Tolerance

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Understanding Your Window of Tolerance

A person’s “window of tolerance” refers to the upper and lower thresholds at which they can effectively manage their emotions and respond to circumstances while under stress. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress may have narrower windows, making life more challenging to navigate. It is important to understand this concept and suggest how clients can widen their window through clinical and holistic therapies offered at Avalon Malibu.

What Is the Window of Tolerance?

The window of tolerance is a model designed in the field of science that studies the nervous system. The window of tolerance can help people identify their optimal emotional state and examine how different circumstances can throw them off balance.

A person may experience physiological symptoms and exhibit undesirable behaviors when this occurs. This model can help individuals learn how to manage emotions that are starting to cause dysfunction in their lives.

How Does It Work?

Imagine looking through a window. Everything is clear, and birds can be heard chirping outside if the window is opened. This is the “zone” in which a person can calmly process and respond to stimuli. They can think and behave rationally.

When faced with severe stress, a person may fall outside the range in which they are emotionally stable and into a state of hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal. Each individual’s window can vary, with some having much narrower windows than others. Learning how to widen one’s window of tolerance can improve resilience to negative experiences.

The Two Sides of the Window

People move between different arousal states depending on what they are experiencing. Yet, it can become concerning if a person experiences a state with such intensity that it prevents them from functioning. The two primary states discussed here are hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal.


Hyperarousal is a common feature of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). It can also be thought of as being in fight-or-flight mode for extended periods of time. This can lead to psychological and physiological distress that can manifest as the following symptoms:

  • fatigue
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • insomnia
  • impulsivity
  • aggression
  • hypervigilance
  • difficulty concentrating
  • self-destructive behavior
  • overactive startle response
  • deficits in emotion regulation


Metaphorically speaking, hypo-arousal is the other side of the window of tolerance. Instead of becoming overstimulated, a person shuts down or disassociates to cope with the situation. Symptoms may show up as:

  • shame
  • numbness
  • exhaustion
  • depression
  • withdrawing
  • passiveness
  • disconnection
  • memory issues

Factors That Impact a Person’s Window

Some people have a low tolerance for stress. They may have really strong emotions and struggle to manage them. Minor stressors can cause major internal conflicts, causing them to be easily overwhelmed. They may be unable to function until they have calmed down. A person’s quality of life and relationships can be affected, as well as their physical health, due to the harm that stress hormones can have on the body.

Different factors can cause a person to have a narrow window, such as:

  • their coping skills and neurobiology
  • the level and types of social support they have
  • their sense of physical and emotional security
  • and significant/adverse childhood experiences

Trauma & Stress

Trauma and extreme stress can cause an individual to develop PTSD, marked by chronic states of hyper- and hypo-arousal. As a result of painful experiences, their window may narrow or become inflexible. A narrower window makes it easier for a person to be pushed out of their comfort zone. As is the case with many individuals who have PTSD, they may see the world as dangerous and become hyper-attuned to possible (and unlikely) threats.

Individuals who are often living life outside of their window may suffer from mental health disorders.

Widening that Window

An important goal for those struggling with emotional regulation is to widen their window of tolerance. A wider window means they can avoid being consumed by their emotions and instead act with intention. They will be less likely to become inflamed with anger or drained from their instability.

Treatment Options

Both clinical and holistic therapies can assist those with poor emotional regulation that stems from trauma and chronic stress.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) facilitates the transformation of memories contributing to emotional disturbances into positive cognition. Over eight stages, the client will learn to change the thought processes driving negative emotions and downstream behaviors.

Relatedly, neurofeedback therapy works to rewire networks in the brain to create positive associations. Neurofeedback “teaches self-control of brain functions to [clients] by measuring brain waves and providing a feedback signal.” It can help heal trauma and associated symptoms like anxiety and depression.

Learning to Be Mindful of Emotions

Mindfulness techniques have been integrated into many therapies. Yoga and meditation are commonly thought about in this light. Still, evidence-based clinical treatments like psychodrama and art therapy can also enhance self-awareness and teach a person how to think clearly during distress. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) uses clinical and mindfulness methods to help clients manage polarizing emotions and improve their relationships.

A person’s window of tolerance is akin to the zone in which they can respond to challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed. Those who have experienced terrible things in life may have a narrow window, making it easier for them to become hyper- or hypo-aroused. Their window of tolerance can be widened by addressing underlying problems and learning techniques to help them return to a state of calm. Avalon Recovery is a treatment center for adults with mental health disorders and addiction. We have trauma-based therapies like EDMR and DBT that have helped many clients heal from the past. Mindfulness techniques are integrated into holistic and experiential therapies to help individuals find the space to breathe before reacting. Our goal is to help clients discover hope despite their struggles so they acquire the strength to face them and gain independence. For more information, call (844) 857-5992

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