We all experience different emotional triggers everyday - bad traffic, being late to work, and other situations can stress us out. Usually, we are able to bounce back into contentment. 

However, some circumstances might elicit a more dramatic response–like panic or emotional disconnect. It can be much harder to get your brain back to ‘base line.’

This range of emotions that you can manage on your own is called your “window of tolerance.” Everyone has one, but it is different for each person, and can even change for someone throughout their lives.

What Is A Window of Tolerance? 

Everyone has a window or range of emotional stability. When you are inside that window, things are fine. You still feel a wide range of emotions, even some feelings of anxiety or sadness. These negative feelings or stimuli may pop up from time to time, but you are able to handle your reaction and process that stimuli.

This is the window of tolerance. As long as a person is able to self-regulate their emotions and thoughts, they remain in the window. Within this scope of feelings, the work that your brain is putting in to remain emotionally balanced, is tolerable. 

The range of the window of tolerance can be different for everyone. For some people, it’s quite broad. They can handle intense situations and still have the ability to regulate and recover. For others, their window is very narrow.

What happens when a situation pushes a person outside of their window of tolerance? They can become what is called “hyperaroused” or “hypoaroused”. These are your fear responses – fight, flight, or freeze.

After a traumatic event, your body goes into defense mode with those fear responses. A person can experience both hyper- and hypoarousal at different points in time while processing the trauma. 

What is Hyperarousal?

Hyperarousal is your fight-or-flight response. The brain responds to stressors the same way whether they are actually life-threatening or not. Hyperarousal often presents itself similarly to anxiety. You might experience restlessness, sleeplessness, irritability, and fear. Hyperarousal is also a primary symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

When you are in the window of tolerance your brain is working the right amount to maintain stability. Hyperarousal means your brain is working far too hard for the stimulus it’s presented.

During hyperarousal, the sympathetic nervous system is in charge. Harvard Medical School describes this as your brain’s ‘gas pedal.’ Your brain tells your nervous system that you are in danger, and it releases adrenaline that it thinks you need to survive. 

Think of it as your brain giving you the gas you need to go, but in a way that is disproportionate to the circumstances–like “flooring it” in a parking lot as opposed to speeding away from a rockslide. This is why your thoughts and emotions might seem over active.  

Hyperarousal Symptoms

Hyperarousal presents itself similarly to an anxiety disorder, but anxiety can also be a symptom. Other symptoms of hyperarousal include:

  • Aggression
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Hypervigilance
  • Impulsivity
  • Panic 

What is Hypoarousal?

If hyperarousal is the “fight-or-flight” response, hypoarousal is the “freeze” response. This response can often look like depression, including the feelings of numbness and exhaustion. 

Hypoarousal is dictated by the parasympathetic nervous system, or the system that is meant to calm and reset you after a major stressful situation. Sometimes, however, the body applies this response too liberally, and someone experiencing hypoarousal can dissociate from the stimulus. 

Hypoarousal is often seen after an extended period of hyperarousal. Your brain goes from one extreme of being over-aroused to under-stimulated. Some people even experience this “freezing” effect as their initial fear response. Both are normal reactions to trauma.

Hypoarousal Symptoms

The parasympathetic trauma response causes some people to freeze, or what is often described as a “deer-in-the-headlights” look. Because this nervous system is meant to help someone reset after being pumped full of adrenaline, when the body engages it in an improper context, a person appears to be unusually calm or even apathetic in situations that should otherwise elicit a response from them. 

Some of the symptoms of hypoarousal include:

How Can I Learn More About My Own Window of Tolerance?

Know that reacting to trauma and feeling hyper and hypoarousal does not mean there is anything wrong with you. Your body cannot tell whether a stressor means you are truly in danger or not–it sends the same signals regardless.

Getting back to your window of tolerance from hyperarousal and hypoarousal requires different techniques. Through practice and guidance from a counselor, you can better regulate your stimulus responses and widen your window of tolerance.

Inner Balance Counseling can help you understand your own window of tolerance and broaden your ability to process stimuli. We have licensed therapists that specialize in treating trauma through proven techniques. Call or email us today to schedule a consultation. Together, we’ll look towards a brighter future.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC

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