The Window of Tolerance is a concept of understanding of how someone functions optimally and how heightened emotions impact that optimal functioning. This concept, originated by Dr. Dan Siegel, suggests that there is an optimal range that allows for the fluctuations of emotional experience. The ups and downs of emotions could push someone to the edge of their window, but ultimately, they are able to use coping skills and emotion regulation strategies to stay within the Window of Tolerance.
Trauma and other experiences of emotional dysregulation can impact one’s ability to function optimally within the Window of Tolerance. Additional stresses, unmet basic needs, or conflict are other situations that could push someone outside the Window of Tolerance, especially because these situations can decrease an individual’s capacity to function within their Window of Tolerance.
The optimal range is where we experience calm arousal. This is the ideal state and is “home base” where an individual can experience highs and lows of emotion but regulate and return to this state of calm arousal. However, if someone’s capacity for regulation is diminished or if an individual’s Window of Tolerance is shorter due to traumatic experiences, it becomes harder to stay in this calm arousal state and becomes more likely that hyperarousal or hypoarousal will be experienced.
Hyperarousal is characterized by heightened activation or energy. Some symptoms associated with hyperarousal include anxiety, panic, fear, or hypervigilance. In the hyperarousal state the body struggles to relax and individuals often experience physical tension and tightness, difficulty sleeping, and may also experience irritability or hostility.
Hypoarousal is what happens when someone feels numb, dissociative, or shut down. Occasionally this state occurs after too much hyperarousal as the body seeks to overcorrect and move to a calmer state. Symptoms associated with hypoarousal include exhaustion, depression, numbness, disconnection, and dissociation.
The body and emotional system will try to return to the optimal range or calm arousal state, especially when hyperarousal or hypoarousal takes a toll on the physical body. It is important to note that returning to calm after being in the hyperarousal state does not mean the same thing as shutting down or feeling nothing – that would be considered hypoarousal. The calm arousal state is where an individual feels calm and ready to handle or manage different emotional tasks.
If someone has been living outside of their Window of Tolerance, one of the goals of therapy is to help them learn skills for regulation and learn how to experience life from the calm arousal state. If calm feels like a foreign concept to you, it is okay – many people feel that calm is difficult to tolerate. The state of calm arousal can be very uncomfortable for someone who has spent so much time being activated or shut down or bouncing between the two.
If you are curious about what it would be like to live in a state of calm or want to learn skills to help you widen or more fully experience your own Window of Tolerance, please reach out to us today.