What is the window of tolerance in PTSD and Trauma?
Do you remember a time when you suddenly felt intensely angry and frustrated and thinking back you don’t recognise yourself and your behaviour or you can’t even remember what happened? Or a time when you felt so overwhelmed that you just wanted to disappear, disconnect from everybody and everything, cocoon yourself in the sofa or bed? Do you ever feel so distracted or absent minded and can’t remember what was happening at the time. These are examples of times when we are outside of our window of tolerance. But what is the window of tolerance?
Why is the window of tolerance important to understand our reactions?
Window of tolerance is a term coined by Dr Dan Siegel and is used to describe the zone of optimal internal activation and connection with the environment, in which a person is able to function well. When we are within this zone, we tend to be able to listen better, engage in conversations, understand what we are being told and think of our response to others. This includes external information, what happens around us, and internal, how we feel inside. When we are within our window of tolerance, it is easier to respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty, have important conversations with people and take perspective and think of solutions if we are faced with a challenge of problem.
What does distress look like?
We can be hyper-aroused, above our window of tolerance. When we are hyper-aroused, where we may notice signs of dysregulation such as feeling agitated, restless, anxious or angry. This happens when our brain interprets a situation as a threat and danger to us (either physical or emotional “threat”, for example, the risk of falling down, being run over, being harmed by another person.
We can also be hypo-aroused, below our window of tolerance. This is when we tend to notice an urge to shut down and disconnect from our surroundings. We may feel tired and sluggish, spaced out and distractive. In extremely difficult situations, you may feel completely zoned out and numb, both emotionally and physically. Some people may feel that they can’t react, like being frozen, or a loss of strength and flop.
Where do these emotions and sensations come from?
These sensations are part of what we call the Fight or Flight response. When this happens, the protective part of our brain that is involved in keeping us safe and alive takes over from the thinking part of the brain. It’s one of the responses that we share with animals, and what do animals do when they are threatened by a predator or danger? They fight with the predator (for example, a lion protecting their cubs) they run away from the danger or the predator (like antilopes do), or the reaction is like pretending to be dead (the animal freezes and becomes immobile or flops), as in the animal world, most predators will abandon their prey the prey looks sick or dead, to avoid getting sick themselves.
So, what can we do to help with these difficult emotions?
Our window of tolerance is not static. It is different for different people, depending on a number of factors, for example your life experiences and your current circumstances. Our window varies depending on our circumstances, it is narrower when we are stressed and it widens when we are relaxed, worry-free and we feel safe. The window of tolerance can also be widened by using strategies and tools that can help your come out of this survival mode.
When you start therapy for PTSD and trauma, the window of tolerance can be really helpful to understand some of the symptoms of trauma, which often lead to people being outside of their window of tolerance. Your therapist will generally spend a number of sessions teaching you skills and tools to help you stay within your window of tolerance and to expand your window of tolerance. Once you have some essential emotional regulation and self-soothing skills, you and your therapist can then go onto working with your traumatic memories. This is an important part of the therapy and it will help you through the next stages of trauma focused therapy.