Window of tolerance: what it is and how it affects us emotionally

Some people may recall their experiences of uncontrollable emotional overflow. These are people who, with a simple stimulus linked to a traumatic experience, bring up all kinds of disturbing memories that can both paralyze them and provoke the most serious outbursts of anger.

Each person has limits of calm, a phenomenon called the window of tolerance. These are the levels of calm in which we can function optimally, without being overly excited but not shut down. It is functional calm within certain parameters, which differ from person to person.

Below we will find out exactly what this tolerance window is. and what can make it look narrow.

    What is the window of tolerance?

    The tolerance window model was developed by Pat Ogden, Kekuni Minton and Claire Pain (2009), although based on a concept by psychologist Dr. Dan Siegel, with the aim of explaining in a simple way how the regulation of the Autonomous Nervous System occurs and the response to certain stressful or emotionally disturbing stimuli. Within the framework of polyvagal theory, this system consists of two branches: the sympathetic nervous system is related to alertness, while the parasympathetic system is related to relaxation and calm.

    When a person lacks the ability to prevent defensive responses to an emotionally disturbing stimulus, the nervous system can be found in a constant state of survival-oriented strategies. In this sense, he can use one of the following two: survival strategies of mobilization (hyperexcitation) or survival strategies of immobilization (hypoexcitation).

    People who do not have the sufficient capacity to regulate the activation of the autonomic system may face different problems. Among these problems we would find psychosomatization, cognitive deficits and socially dysfunctional behaviors that would lead to distressing relationships and a desperate search for safety and relief. Mental disturbances can appear and become worse due to the person’s over-arousal or hypoarousal.

    The tolerance window model presents three differentiated activation zones, two pathological and one optimal: the optimal activation zone, the hyperactivation zone and the hypoactivation zone.

      1. Hyperactivation zone

      The zone of hyperactivation is the condition in which the person experiences an increase in all kinds of organic and psychological sensations. It occurs when it is above the maximum tolerance threshold and corresponds to an increase in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.

      When we are in this zone, we present more emotional reactivity, hypervigilance, experiences of intrusive images and memories and disorganizes any cognitive processing. Hyperactivity also makes it difficult to sleep and eat.

        2. Optimal activation zone

        The optimum activation zone, also called the tolerance margin, this is the area where psychologically and biologically well-regulated people are found. We would say this is the zone of calm and, thanks to this, the individual is able to effectively integrate the information he receives, to connect with our emotions and to think about our physiological and mental states in a functional way. .

        3. Hypoactivation zone

        The zone of hypoactivation involves several symptoms, all associated with low energy and low reactivity. Unlike overactivation, this is below the tolerance range.

        Its symptoms include the relative absence of sensation, numbness of emotions, slowing of the cognitive process and slow movements. You may also feel tired, confused, distracted or embarrassed

        It would correspond to an excessive increase in the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system.

          Trauma and emotional disturbance

          The autonomic nervous system and trauma are linked. This brings about a certain situation because a traumatic experience has to do with the perception of the individual, especially if he perceives it as potentially dangerous for his life.. If so, the person implements multiple survival responses, which can be logged if not handled properly. If this happens, it will be during an emotional disturbance, due to either hyperexcitation or hypoexcitation.

          Stressors can be internal or external: internal factors can be intrusive memories, physical discomfort that causes health problems, overwhelming feelings and sensations; while externals are generally social situations, although they can also be stimuli such as smells, tastes, tones of voice or anything unpleasant to the person receiving them.

            What does it mean to be outside the tolerance window?

            Sometimes emotions overwhelm us. There are many reasons. This can be due to a lack of mistrust, a lack of strategies to manage emotions, a difficulty in thinking… The two limits of the window of tolerance correspond to two extreme states of the ideal activation of the body, the hyper and the ‘hypoexcitation mentioned above.

            Depending on each person’s life experiences, we will develop a model of response to different stimuli. Because everyone has their own way of reacting to certain experiences, some people can be very reactive, suffering from panic attacks or anger. Others, on the other hand, may be disconnected from body and mind in the face of a particular stimulus, their mind is blocked, and they are virtually depersonalized.

            Faced with dangerous or traumatic situations, our body acts to survive and sets in motion mechanisms that sometimes fail to return to their normal state. People who are outside the window of tolerance often are because their window is too narrow and they find it difficult to find themselves in a basic state of security, calm and relaxation. At the very least, these people are hyper or hypoactivated.

            How to extend the tolerance window?

            How narrow our window of tolerance is depends on our life experiences, especially those of childhood.. Childhoods full of traumatic experiences often lead to adults whose hyper and hypoarousal in the face of stressful elements are easily activated. If you have not yet overcome your trauma, it is very likely that you will experience symptoms ranging very often from temper tantrums to mental blockage.

            We cannot change our past, but we can work on our present to have a better future. The traumatic events of the past will not cease to exist, but we can change the narrowness of our window of tolerance., broaden it so that there are less and less stimuli that induce us to psychological stress.

            We can use a variety of techniques to stay within our window of tolerance and gradually widen it. First of all, it is essential to recognize what this window of tolerance is, to know what its limits are because, by working on it, to widen it even more. Among the techniques we can use are:

            • Be physically active: walk, run, go to the gym …
            • Recognize negative thoughts and rephrase them in a positive way.
            • Share our thoughts and concerns with someone you trust.
            • Practice guided breathing and meditation.

            Bibliographical references

            • Dana, D. (2019). Polyvagal theory in therapy. How to keep pace with regulation? Barcelona: Eleftheria Editorial.
            • Nieto, I., & López, MC (2016). Global approach to the complex trauma clinic. Contemporary Clinic, 7 (2), 87-104.
            • Ogden, P., Minton, K. and Pain, C. (2009). Trauma and body. A sensorimotor model of psychotherapy. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouwer.
            • Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body takes care of it. The brain, mind and body to overcome trauma. Barcelona: Eleftheria.
            • Siegel, Daniel J. 2012. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Second ed. New York: The Guilford Press.
            • Porges S. (2017). Pocket guide to polivagal theory. The power of transformation feels secure. Barcelona: Eleftheria SL publishing house
            • Siegel JD (2011). Mindsight. The New Science of Personal Transformation. Barcelona: Paidós.
            • Morales Aguilar, D., 2018. Challenges in psychotherapy: complex trauma, affection and dissociation. License thesis. Humanist clinical center.
            • Masini Fernandez, C. and Cury Abril, M., 2018. The arts and art therapy as an approach to trauma and emotional memory. ALETHEIA research project. Vallecas Day Psychiatric Hospital, Infanta Leonor University Hospital.

            Leave a Comment