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The window of tolerance: what is it and what does it do for me?

The window of tolerance is a term coined by UCLA's Dr. Dan Siegel and is a widely used metaphor to explain why we experience dysregulation. 

According to the window of tolerance, we each have an optimal zone in which we function effectively and cope with stress in a healthy manner. Our daily demands are easier to manage when we are in this optimal zone. However, staying in the optimal zone isn't always easy. This is especially true for those who have experienced trauma, stress, or mental illness.


Each of us has a different window of tolerance. It is possible for some people to experience high levels of emotional intensity and a wide range of emotions without becoming dysregulated. We all know someone like this—no matter what happens in their life, it doesn't phase them. We would say someone like this has a relatively wide window of tolerance. The window of tolerance may be narrower for others, resulting in volatility, upset, or withdrawal. 


It's imperative to know your personal window of tolerance, so that you can understand when you're feeling overwhelmed and take steps to regulate your emotions. Additionally, recognizing others' window of tolerance can help you better understand and support them.

I encourage you to share this page with anyone suffering from past trauma or anxiety who could benefit from it.

The Optimal Zone

Think of a time when you remained calm, balanced, and in control. Can you recall what it was like to feel grounded, alert, safe, and present? This is what the optimal zone feels like. The optimal zone is our "comfort zone" or the place where we can self-soothe and self-regulate. It's ideally where most of us want to spend our day because it's when we are most effective and feel grounded.

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The Role of Trauma

When a person experiences trauma, staying grounded in the present can be challenging because the past can become vivid and intrusive. Our minds and bodies become defensive to the world around us and we may enter one of the 4 trauma responses—fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. (We commonly refer to these as the 4 F's of trauma.) 

When we get pushed out of our optimal zone, we dysregulate and experience a fight-or-flight response. If we cannot fight or flee, we will freeze or fawn. Traumatic responses like the 4 F's are normal when we're in a dangerous situation. We naturally react defensively to things that feel unsafe or seem unsafe to us. Trauma and extreme stress, however, can create paralyzing responses that stick with us, even long after the traumatic event(s) end. When anxiety, stress, or negativity triggers us, our mind thinks that past trauma is reoccurring. Our mind takes us to a place of defensiveness to protect us. Someone constantly living in their past trauma is primed to detect threats and enter that state of defense regularly. That means they generally have a very narrow window of tolerance.

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When we leave our window of tolerance or the optimal zone because we feel anxious and agitated, or numb and shut down, we experience dysregulation. Dysregulation begins when we feel uncomfortable and start to lose control of our emotions. Dysregulation affects our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and physical sensations. You may find your thoughts racing, you can't hold back your tears, and you start fidgeting, sweating, and even looking for an exit to get out of the room. To learn more tools and how to work with dysregulation, check out my mental health manual.


There are two states of dysregulation: hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal. Those terms are often confusing, so let's clarify them.


Hyper-arousal is exactly what it sounds like—hyper. Lots of energy. It's typically a fight-or-flight response characterized by excessive energy and emotions. It can look like extreme annoyance, agitation, or anxiety.


Hyper-arousal may cause people to become overly sensitive or responsive to everyday events. As a result of their mind being "stuck on" and unable to relax, they may find it difficult to sleep, eat, manage emotions, or concentrate.

Symptoms of hyper-arousal include: 

  • agitation

  • anxiety

  • hyper-vigilence

  • panic

  • fear

  • anger

  • reactivity

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Hypo-arousal is the opposite of hyper-arousal. In hypo-arousal, a person experiences a freeze or a fawn response, which means they are shutting down, withdrawing, numbing, isolating, or self-sacrificing to keep the peace. Hypo-arousal is feeling emotionally flat and disconnected.


When hypo-arousal occurs, people may experience difficulty with sleep and eating habits, either eating too much or too little. In addition to feeling disconnected and depressed, they may also feel unable to express their thoughts, emotions, or respond physically.

Symptoms of hypo-arousal include: 

  • social isolation

  • numbness

  • hopelessness

  • depression

  • reduced physical movement 

  • shame or embarrassment

  • difficulty thinking and responding

Adjusting the Sails

We’ve all heard the quote, “we can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”


When life throws demands and stress at you, but you can handle whatever comes your way, this is known as "smooth sailing." Smooth sailing is dealing with challenges in positive ways with healthy coping mechanisms to avoid dysregulation. 

When you deviate from the smooth sailing path, you'll feel uncomfortable, agitated, or anxious. However, it's critical to remember that you're still in control of the ship. You can steer the ship back into your tolerance window using self-regulating techniques. You can also build cushions along the shorelines. This is so that if your ship starts to deviate from its path, there are protections in place to prevent you from crossing over into dysregulation. We'll discuss some ways to build those barriers in a moment. 

If you're unable to bring yourself back into the window of tolerance, the risk is crashing or sinking the ship, i.e. entering a state of hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal. It is often in these states that relationships or property are damaged, harm to self occurs, and poor decisions are made. Thankfully, clinicians and even trusted loved ones can assist with relationship repair, self-forgiveness, and patching up the ship so that you can keep sailing.

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How to Identify Your Window of Tolerance


So how do you know if your tolerance window is wide, narrow, or somewhere in between? 

Self-regulation starts with understanding your personal window of tolerance and identifying the triggers that push you into hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal. By identifying the emotional and physical cues and clues that are telling you that you've departed from the optimal zone, you can practice course-correcting.

Here are 3 simple ways to identify your window of tolerance:

  1. Identify your symptoms

  2. Assess the distress level

  3. Name the cause and build a cushion (if possible)

My Cognitive Resilience Mental Health Manual contains an exercise worksheet to help you build awareness of your symptoms and identify your window of tolerance, in addition to other information and exercises. You can print a free copy of the worksheet here.


You can get a copy of the full manual by clicking the button below:


Once you have identified your window of tolerance, you can practice using strategies to bring yourself back into balance. Creating a plan for how to react to a situation that puts you out of balance can reduce stress and anxiety.


We all experience physical and emotional reactions when something triggers us. When you feel agitated or shut down, pause. Take a breath. Focus on your thoughts. Try asking, "What am I saying to myself right now? What is my inner monologue telling me" or "What am I feeling in my body right now? Where am I feeling it?" 

What were you doing that could have caused your body to feel this way?

Try looking back at the symptoms we listed of hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal. Can you think about your week and identify any times, activities, situations, or people that bring up any of these symptoms for you? 

It can be difficult to recognize when these symptoms arise for you, but recognizing them will make you more aware and better equipped to handle them. Don't expect to recognize your symptoms every time. You will become better at detecting and addressing your own symptoms as you practice. Awareness is the first significant step in learning to manage and control stress or anxiety. Feelings, thoughts, and physical responses are unique to each individual. Without identifying what is happening to you, you cannot manage it.


Once you know what your symptoms are, give each symptom a rank based on how much it distresses you (use the free handout listed above). Try something like a scale of 1 to 5 for each symptom, with 5 being the most severe. Consider the emotions, thoughts, and physical distress you experience. By knowing which symptoms are most severe for you, you'll understand where to direct your efforts as well as where you can build some cushions.


From step one, did you identify any situations, events, people, or tasks that triggered you during your week? Think about last week.

  • What were you doing that made you feel stressed, anxious, or numb?

  • Was it something someone said to you or something you thought about?

  • Was it a particular situation or activity? 

When you identify what triggers your emotions, you can be better prepared to deal with those triggers the next time they come up. Avoiding triggers isn't always possible, or even recommended, but cushions can be put in place to make dealing with them easier. For example, if you know you might feel stressed during a work meeting, could you go for a brisk walk beforehand? Would it be possible to do a grounding exercise together before you have a difficult conversation with a loved one? If you're struggling to connect with others and want to isolate yourself, could you smell some essential oils and eat a crunchy snack?

When we can identify the things that regularly cause us stress or dysregulation in our lives, we can build in cushions to help us better manage our emotions in those encounters. Parents, teachers, and company leaders can include exercises and activities to help youth and workers practice self-regulation exercises so that they, too, can learn these important skills.


So, what if you have a narrow window of tolerance? Does it mean you'll do breathing exercises every single day, many times a day, for the rest of your life? Well, of course, I want you to keep breathing for a long, long time. Breathing is a good thing. But no, you won't have to do self-regulation exercises intensively and frequently forever.


Although we have different ranges of the window of tolerance, our ranges are not stagnant. They can shrink and grow throughout our lives, and there are two things we can do to improve your window of tolerance.


These include:

1) widening the window

2) building in cushions

Picture yourself floating down the middle of a river. When you expand your window of tolerance, the river widens and slows down. You feel comfortable and safe in calm, flowing waters. There are a few boulders and obstacles sticking out of the water in your path, but you can easily navigate around them and don't feel threatened. However, when adversity, trauma, undue stress, or anxiety enter your life, the river shrinks. The currents speed up and shorelines encroach closer. You feel nervous, start to paddle faster, try to avoid hitting the obstacles which has become harder, and struggle to keep yourself afloat. 

How to Widen the Window of Tolerance


Mindfulness is a powerful tool to deal with stress and emotions. It allows us to pay attention to what we feel while staying present. When we engage in mindfulness exercises, we don't try to stop stress or anxiety. Instead, we allow ourselves to feel those emotions, letting them pass through us, without reacting negatively. There are many mindfulness exercises and practices out there. Some of them include meditation, yoga, nature walks, prayer, or journaling. 

  • Name your feelings

  • Ask yourself where those feelings came from. 

  • Focus more on what you're feeling rather than why you're feeling it. Where do you feel it in your body?

  • Ask yourself, "why do these feelings matter?"

Our emotions are a form of communication. It's our brain's attempt to try and tell us to pay attention to something. So, what is your brain trying to tell you? What does it want you to pay attention to and why?

  • Let yourself be open to positive and negative emotions. Don't try to stuff or avoid them. 

  • Avoid judging your feelings. Don't tell yourself you should or shouldn't feel a certain way. Try to eliminate "should" from your inner monologue.

  • Try to do one task at a time (multitasking is draining).

  • Pay attention to the here and now


Get your daily "DOSE" of happy brain chemicals 

Our brain has happiness chemicals that help us feel emotionally stable. When we boost these chemicals, allowing ourselves to have happy and positive experiences, we widen our window of tolerance. DOSE stands for Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins

  • Dopamine: This is the chemical that makes us feel reward.

    • Make a to-do list (each time you check something off you increase your dopamine levels)

    • create something (artwork, craft, music, etc.) 

    • meditate

    • get enough sleep

    • spend time in the sun

    • play some pickleball

  • Oxytocin: This is the love hormone or cuddle hormone. It makes us feel safe.

    • Give or receive a massage 

    • Hug a loved one

    • Cuddle a pet

    • Socialize with friends and family 

    • Try yoga

  • Serotonin: This is our mood stabilizer. It is connected to what we eat more than any other hormone.

    • Spend time in nature

    • Nutrition (eat well)

    • Gratitude 

    • Rehearse and relive happy memories

    • Exercise

  • Endorphins: Endorphins "end" pain. They provide relief.

    • Eat dark chocolate

    • Exercise (try dancing!)

    • Give or receive a massage 

    • Laughter


Build in Cushions


Referring back to the analogy of your tolerance window being like a river you float down, let's revisit the obstacles in that river. "What's around the river bend?" Pocahontas might ask. Well, we don't always know. But if it's anything like my river, it's probably just more rapids and a hungry crocodile or two! Just kidding.

There will always be obstacles in life that threaten to dysregulate us, such as an unanticipated car wreck or other life-altering circumstances. There are, however, many day-to-day triggers that we know will happen. We can build cushions to make these obstacles less threatening, easier to navigate, and less painful when we bump into them. 

Many of the ways we build in cushions begin with the way we live our lives. Are we getting enough quality sleep? How about exercise? How is your nutrition? What about your social relationships? Getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy food, and having positive relationships have a profound impact on our ability to self-regulate, so we have to start there by making improvements.

We can also try exercises such as: 

  1. Challenging our negative thoughts. Reframing is a powerful way to identify thinking errors and ask questions to think about our inner dialogue differently. We don't have to accept our thoughts and feelings as facts. We can take negative thoughts and turn them into positive thoughts. 

  2. Write or journal. Making lists, writing about our thoughts and feelings, or even creative writing helps us unload and clear mental clutter.

  3. Create a mental health first aid kit. Put together a small crisis kit you can keep with you for moments when you feel overwhelmed. Try including things like positive affirmations, simple easy-to-use tools to alleviate your symptoms, and toys or tools to help you engage in a coping skill.


Learn more about mental health crisis kits in our mental health manual. 

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