Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Window of tolerance

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Window of tolerance:
What is the window of tolerance and how can it be applied?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study

Sam and Taylor live together. They have been friends for many years and share a lot of common interests, however, they experience the world differently through their own window of tolerance. Throughout this chapter we will follow Sam and Taylor's journey to better understand how the window of tolerance differs between people and across situations.

Figure 1. Dr. Dan Siegel (Siegal, 2020, p.343) discussing the window of tolerance model.

The window of tolerance is an explanatory component of emotion regulation, theorised by Dr. Daniel Siegel (1999). The model is commonly used to explain emotional dysregulation amongst people who have experienced trauma or live with mental health concerns. Siegel (2020) suggests that everyone has a window of tolerance, however, individual differences exist across the width of the window (Ogden et al., 2006). Siegel (2020) describes the window as an optimal zone of emotional arousal influenced by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The optimal zone allows individuals to process stimuli, regulate emotion and function effectively.

Dysregulation occurs when arousal intensity increases beyond the boundaries of the window of tolerance and interferes with emotion, motivation, cognition and behaviour (see Figure 1). Greater dysregulation is observed in people who have experienced complex trauma (Corrigan et al., 2010). The window of tolerance model recognises arousal intensity and dysregulation across two branches of the autonomic nervous system (Ogden et al., 2006; Siegel, 2020):

  1. Sympathetic nervous system (Hyper arousal)
  2. Parasympathetic nervous system (Hypo arousal)

This chapter provides insight into the window of tolerance and how the theory can be applied.

Focus questions
  • What does it feel like when you are functioning within the window of tolerance?
  • Have you experienced a state of increased arousal intensity?
  • Why is it important to recognise that people have different sized windows?

Window of tolerance[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. A visual representation of the window of tolerance (NICABM, 2019; Siegel, 2020)

The window of tolerance model (see Figure 2) describes the optimal zone of emotional arousal as a window which expands and shrinks under different circumstances. The ability to tolerate stress, regulate emotion, make decisions and engage in effective behaviour increases when the window of tolerance expands, or opens. In contrast, when the window of tolerance shrinks, or closes, the capacity to effectively cope, behave and regulate emotions decreases. It is suggested that the window of tolerance facilitates the space to process emotional arousal without disrupting effective functioning (Siegel, 2020).

Within the window[edit | edit source]

To be within the window of tolerance is to feel in control, present in the moment and capable of effectively navigating the current situation (Siegel, 2020). When distressing situations arise, individuals are able to self-soothe and regulate their emotions. Logical thinking, problem solving and decision making are able to be actioned. The autonomic nervous system is functioning at an optimal level of arousal, allowing the individual to feel a sense of control.[factual?]

Width of the window[edit | edit source]

Everyone has a “window of tolerance”, however, the width of the window is different for each individual (Corrigan et al., 2010; Siegel, 2020). This can be compared to biopsychosocial differences of emotional affect, vulnerability, sensitivity and reactivity between individuals. Some people are frequently exposed to things that shrink the window, such as trauma, physical illness or pain, stress, grief, poor nutrition or sleep. Others are fortunate enough to have adequate social support, be able to access psychotherapy, or have sufficient leisure time to engage in activities that expand the window (see Figure 2). Siegel (2020) suggests that the individual’s current state of mind and their level of emotional and physical exhaustion can expand or shrink the window of tolerance. An individual’s tolerance may vary throughout the day and under conditions that did not previously induce distress.

Trauma and neurodiversity[edit | edit source]

The width of the window of tolerance is also influenced by neurodiversity and exposure to traumatic events, abuse or neglect (Corrigan et al., 2010; Lanius et al., 2014; Ogden et al., 2006). People living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are suggested to have a significantly smaller window of tolerance compared to those who have not experienced trauma. Likewise, experiences of complex emotional trauma, particularly during childhood, impact upon the window. Smaller windows are also observed within the neurodivergent community, amongst people who live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Narrow windows of tolerance may exacerbate, or explain, the symptoms, sensitivities and behaviours present in people with a lived experience of trauma or neurodivergence (Ogden et al., 2006; Siegel, 2020).

Case study
  • Experiences intense frustration and anger
  • Finds it extremely difficult to control emotions
  • Struggles to get adequate sleep each night
  • Busy with university and working full-time
  • Can't afford to access psychological support
  • Rarely experiences anger or out-of-control emotions
  • Able to remain calm when faced with frustration
  • Uses self-soothing skills when distressed or upset
  • Balances work and life stressors with fun hobbies
  • Has a supportive family and a regular psychologist

Who is more likely to have a narrow window of tolerance?


Dysregulation[edit | edit source]

Dysregulation refers to an impairment in a specific regulatory process. In the window of tolerance model, dysregulation is observed when arousal of the autonomic nervous system increases in intensity and expands beyond the individual’s window of tolerance (Siegel, 2020). This impairment disrupts effective emotional, cognitive and behavioural processes (see Figure 2). The increase in arousal intensity is observed across two systems:

  1. Sympathetic nervous system activation
  2. Parasympathetic nervous system activation.

Sympathetic nervous system[edit | edit source]

The primary role of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is to prepare the body for vigorous activity and stimulate the fight or flight response (Kalat, 2019). When a perceived threat arises this system prompts an increase in heart rate, respiration and motivation to take action against the threat. This response consumes energy. When an individual experiences dysregulation they may feel increasingly frustrated, agitated or uncomfortable. These uncomfortable feelings may prompt an urge to either lash out or isolate (fight or flight). However, the individual retains a sense of control over their behaviour and the ability to regulate their emotions.

Parasympathetic nervous system[edit | edit source]

The primary role of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is to conserve the body's resources in response to SNS activation. The PNS stimulates the rest and digest response (Kalat, 2019). When a perceived threat arises this system prompts a decrease in heart rate and respiration to conserve energy. When an individual experiences dysregulation they may feel increasingly lethargic, numb or uncomfortable. These uncomfortable feelings may prompt an urge to shut down or sleep (rest and digest). The individual is still able to regulate their emotions and control their behaviour.

Case study
Sam didn't sleep well last night. He was up late studying. He feels stressed as he is yet to complete his assignment and knows that he has a busy day of work ahead of him. Sam looks at his to-do list and his heart begins racing, however, he feels capable of handling his responsibilities today.
Taylor has recently started a new job and his application for leave was denied. His upcoming holiday will have to be rescheduled. Taylor feels numb and exhausted. He wants to lay down and go to sleep early, however, he decides to do the laundry and cook dinner before bed.

Taylor is experiencing dysregulation in which system?

Parasympathetic nervous system
Sympathetic nervous system

Arousal[edit | edit source]

The window of tolerance model identifies arousal as excessive nervous system activation (Siegel, 2020); this activation increases in response to an overwhelming situation, potential threat or traumatic experience (Corrigan et al., 2010; Lanius et al., 2014). Arousal exists as a specific stage beyond mere dysregulation and may be compared to overstimulation within the neurodivergent community. Arousal differs from dysregulation in the experience of automatic psychophysiological symptoms which are considered to be beyond the individual’s capacity for self-control. Excessive increases in arousal intensity are observed across the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Simultaneous arousal of both systems can also occur.

Hyper arousal[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Dr. Dan Siegel discussing hyper arousal (Siegel, 2020, p.348).

Hyper arousal is the term used to describe excessive activation, or overstimulation, of the sympathetic nervous system (Siegel, 2020). In this state the body is responding to a threat or traumatic experience by preparing the individual for action. When SNS arousal intensifies, and surpasses the boundaries of the window of tolerance, individuals may experience physiological symptoms such as:

  • Trembling
  • Shaking
  • Hyperventilation
  • Increased heart rate

Hyper arousal can prompt feelings of overwhelm, distress, anxiety and anger. Individuals experiencing hyper arousal may feel out of control. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight behavioural response which motivates action to reduce the threat and defend the self (Lanius et al., 2014). The fight response motivates the individual to approach the threat or engage in conflict. The flight response motivates the individual to avoid the threat or run away. When the SNS is hyperaroused, behaviour, emotions and cognitions are disrupted.

Individuals who have experienced trauma are likely to respond to overwhelming situations from a state of hyperarousal (Lanius et al., 2014). These overwhelming situations are often non-life-threatening, suggesting hypersensitivity and a narrow window of tolerance (Corrigan et al., 2010). Such a response may elicit an impulsive or excessive reaction. Siegel (2020) identifies excessively aroused behaviour as a mindless reaction (see Figure 3).

Case study
Sam came home angry after a stressful day at work. He has an assignment due but cannot think clearly. His emotions are overwhelming and his hands are shaking. He opens the laptop to begin studying but the wifi is down. Sam screams in frustration. His sympathetic nervous system is aroused. Sam is experiencing the "fight" response.
Taylor is frustrated with his new boss for denying the leave application. He feels so agitated that he hid in his office all day, with the door closed. When he got home he went straight to his room. He doesn't want to deal with people today. Taylor's heart is racing. His sympathetic nervous system is aroused. Taylor is experiencing the "flight" response.

Hypoarousal[edit | edit source]

Hypoarousal is the term used to describe excessive activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (Siegel, 2020). In this state the PNS is attempting to relax the body and conserve its resources. When PNS arousal intensifies beyond the boundaries of the window of tolerance individuals may experience physiological symptoms such as:

  • Lethargy
  • Numbness
  • Slowed breathing
  • Decreased heart rate

Hypoarousal can prompt feelings of being emotionally or physically numb, exhausted or drained. Individuals experiencing hypoarousal may feel disconnected or detached from their self, their body, their emotions, or the people and the world around them. The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with the rest and digest response, which motivates the body to shut down for self-protection (Lanius et al., 2014). Rest and digest has been identified as the "freeze" response - an alternative to the fight or flight response.

Individuals who have experienced multiple traumas, or aversive life events, are more likely to exhibit the freeze response than those with less aversive experiences (Hagenaars et al., 2012). D'Andrea et al. (2013) suggest the experience of a traumatic event, in which fight or flight was not possible, primes the individual to freeze during overwhelming situations in the future. Hypoarousal is linked to learned helplessness and is considered to underpin dissociative responses such as depersonalisation and derealisation (Lanius et al., 2014).

Case study
Sam's emotions are often intense and overwhelming. He sometimes finds himself staring blankly at the wall. Sam feels lethargic. He has no energy and notices his heartbeat seems slow too. Everything feels numb. Sam is displaying dissociative symptoms. His parasympathetic nervous system is excessively aroused. Sam is experiencing the "freeze" response.
Taylor has been arguing with his partner. They are ending the relationship. He feels numb. Taylor is exhausted but he can’t seem to muster up the energy to go to bed. His parasympathetic nervous system is excessively aroused. Taylor is experiencing the "freeze" response.

Simultaneous arousal[edit | edit source]

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems typically function together to maintain homeostasis by conserving energy after expending energy (Kalat, 2019). Simultaneous dysregulation of the two systems can occur. When an individual experiences simultaneous dysregulation they may feel an internal sensation of “imploding”. Siegel (2020) likens this feeling to driving a car with no breaks whilst simultaneously accelerating. The parasympathetic system works to conserve the energy used by the sympathetic system, causing uncomfortable feelings which may prompt distress, confusion and unease.


Hyper arousal is the dysregulation of which system?

Sympathetic nervous system
Parasympathetic nervous system

Application[edit | edit source]

The window of tolerance model may be applied in various settings, by practitioners, mental health professionals, the self and peers, to promote a better understanding of emotional arousal and dysregulation. The theory is most notably used to explain the fluctuations in emotionality and coping responses amongst individuals who have experienced psychological trauma (Corrigan et al., 2010; Ogden et al., 2006). This application allows the individual to understand the importance of expanding their window of tolerance (Siegel, 2020).

Psychotherapy[edit | edit source]

The window of tolerance can be applied in psychotherapeutic practices to enhance understanding of emotional arousal. The therapist supports the patient through awareness of dysregulated emotions and maladaptive behaviours (Ringel & Brandall, 2011), whilst encouraging skills development to expand their window of tolerance (Hansen, 2018; Lanius et al., 2014). Psychotherapy may be facilitated by:

  • Psychologists
  • Counsellors
  • Social workers
  • Art therapists

Case study
The school counsellor talks to Sam about his window of tolerance. They focus on self-care and stress-reduction strategies with the aim of expanding his tolerance during the upcoming exams.
Taylor and his psychologist discuss the window of tolerance. She explains the fight-or-flight response and Taylor recognises his recent experience with hyper arousal.

Psychoeducation[edit | edit source]

The window of tolerance can be applied in psychoeducational practices (Hansen, 2018). Psychoeducation is different to psychotherapy. In psychoeducational settings the professional provides an educational service on topics such as mental health, psychological processes, symptoms of illness and treatment options. Psychoeducational facilitators do not typically provide therapy. Professionals providing psychoeducational services may include:

  • Mental health workers
  • Allied health professionals
  • Teachers and educators
  • General Practitioners

Case study
Sam has started seeing a physiotherapist for chronic pain. They are aware of the link between chronic pain and mental health. The physiotherapist provides Sam with an information sheet for strategies to improve pain by reducing stress. The sheet mentions expanding the window of tolerance.
Taylor speaks about the window of tolerance with his doctor. They encourage him to be mindful of hypo arousal and to prioritise eating regular meals, staying hydrated and engaging in regular exercise. The doctor explains these factors influence the width of the window of tolerance.

Trauma-informed care[edit | edit source]

The window of tolerance be applied to enhance trauma-informed care. To be "trauma informed" is to engage in safe care practices through awareness and knowledge of trauma with the aim of avoiding re-traumatisation (Champine et al., 2022). This is particularly relevant for the previously mentioned professions but also for community sector workers in disability and mental health support. Carers, family and friends of those who have experienced trauma may also engage in trauma-informed care. By utilising the window of tolerance model, individuals can increase their awareness of:

  • How other people experience life
  • How trauma impacts emotion regulation
  • Why others respond to arousal differently
  • How they can support others effectively

Case study
Sam's new counsellor is not trauma-informed. He believes all people should be treated the same. His standard approach for the initial session involves asking new clients to divulge any history of trauma or abuse. He assumes everyone can regulate their emotions and behaviour when discussing distressing events.
Taylor recently began a new job as a disability support worker. He is aware of the window of tolerance model and recognises that his client may have a narrow window of tolerance due to their disability and trauma. Taylor changes his approach to better support his client and reduce the risk of dysregulation.

Self-awareness[edit | edit source]

The window of tolerance can also be applied in self-healing, self-help and self-validation practices. With waiting lists for psychological support growing, many people find themselves with motivation to change but lacking the knowledge or support to do so. Sharing knowledge of psychological theories, such as the window of tolerance, should not be restricted by accessibility issues. The model allows people to develop a greater understanding of the psychophysiological aspects of arousal and emotion regulation, which can be valuable and validating knowledge for people who struggle with dysregulation. The model also provides basic direction on practices which expand the window of tolerance. This knowledge may allow people to:

  • Improve awareness of the self, emotion and behaviour
  • Differentiate between hyper and hypo arousal states
  • Recognise behaviours which shrink the window
  • Acknowledge behaviours which expand the window

Case study
Sam's friend Alex is on a waitlist for psychological support. Alex talks to Sam about her situation. She expresses her frustration over being so easily irritated. Alex is ashamed of her angry behaviour. Sam tells her about the window of tolerance. Alex feels validated in her experience and less ashamed of her emotions.
Taylor has been experiencing discomfort in his daily life and increased urges to sleep. He recognises his window of tolerance is shrinking. He knows he can increase his window by looking after his physical health. He implements a new breakfast routine and decides to go for a short walk during his lunch breaks.

Yerkes-Dodson law observes a decrease in performance and wellbeing. This observation is similar to the concept of emotional dysregulation and disrupted functioning within the window of tolerance model. Additional research is recommended to assess the relationship between the two theories.

As the window of tolerance model is commonly utilised in clinical psychology, research on how the model is received by patients would be beneficial. Empirical evidence is recommended when supporting the use of the model in clinical settings, particularly when working with individuals who have experienced trauma. Current research on this topic is unfortunately limited. By applying the window of tolerance model to future research, trauma-informed practices may be improved.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The window of tolerance model provides a theoretical understanding of emotion regulation by identifying an optimal zone of arousal. When arousal levels remain within the boundaries of the window of tolerance, individuals feel regulated and capable of decision making, are able to tolerate distress and function effectively (Siegel, 2020). The width of the window differs across situations and between individuals (Ogden et al., 2006; Siegel, 2020), with narrower windows observed in people with a history of trauma (Corrigan et al., 2010; Lanius, 2014). When arousal intensifies it may push beyond the boundaries of the window of tolerance. Individuals experience an uncomfortable feeling of dysregulation yet still remain in control of their behaviour. Arousal intensity can increase into a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal. When hyperaroused ,the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action by engaging the fight or flight response. When hypoaroused, the parasympathetic nervous system attempts to conserve energy by engaging the freeze response. Both states of excessive arousal are characterised by automatic physiological responses to an overwhelming situation, potential threat or trauma which disrupts emotion regulation and behaviour.

The window of tolerance model can be applied to enhance the understanding of autonomic arousal and its impact on emotions and subsequent behaviours. This can be achieved through psychotherapy with professionals such as psychologists, counsellors, social workers, and art therapists (Ringell & Brandall, 2011). Psychoeducational services also utilise the window of tolerance model to provide knowledge of arousal, separate of a therapeutic intervention (Hansen, 2018). Trauma-informed care may utilise the model to improve safe practice amongst healthcare professionals, community workers, carers, family and friends of those who have experienced trauma (Champine et al., 2022). Others may benefit from accessing the information provided in the window of tolerance model and applying it to their own self awareness and self-healing practices. The model is widely accepted in clinical practice despite a current lack of empirical evidence. Future research on improving trauma-informed practices and investigating individual differences in arousal sensitivity is recommended (Matickas, 2022). The findings uncovered in this chapter suggest the window of tolerance can be a validating and informative resource in the field of motivation and emotion, particularly when used to enhance awareness of emotional dysregulation.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Champine, R. B., Hoffman, E. E., Matlin, S. L., Strambler, M. J., & Tebes, J. K. (2022). “What Does it Mean to be Trauma-Informed?”: A Mixed-Methods Study of a Trauma-Informed Community Initiative. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 31(2), 459–472.

Corrigan, F. M., Fisher, J. J., Nutt, D. (2010) Autonomic dysregulation and the Window of Tolerance model of the effects of complex emotional trauma. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(1), 17–25.

D’Andrea, W., Pole, N., DePierro, J., Freed, S., & Wallace, D. B. (2013). Heterogeneity of defensive responses after exposure to trauma: Blunted autonomic reactivity in response to startling sounds. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 90(1), 80–89.

Hagenaars, M. A., Stins, J. ., & Roelofs, K. (2012). Aversive life events enhance human freezing responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141(1), 98–105.

Hansen. (2018). Hjernefunksjoner og behandlingsmetoder knyttet til gjenopplevelse av traumatiske minner. The University of Bergen.

Kalat, J. W. (2019). Biological Psychology (13th ed.). Cengage.

Lanius, U. F., Paulsen, S. L., & Corrigan, F. M. (2014). Neurobiology and Treatment of Traumatic Dissociation : Towards an Embodied Self. (1st ed.). Springer Publishing Company, Incorporated.

Matickas, M. (2022). Measuring the width of the window of tolerance and associations of interoceptive sensibility and arousal in student’s daily life. University of Twente.

Ogden, Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: a sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy (1st ed.). W. W. Norton.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotions (7th ed.). Wiley.

Ringel, S. S., & Brandell, J. R. (2011). Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Theory, Practice, and Research. In Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Theory, Practice, and Research. SAGE Publications, Incorporated.

Seigel, D. J. (1999) The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. Guilford Publications.

Seigel, D. J. (2020) The developing mind (3rd ed.): How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. Guilford Publications.

Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit-Formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.

External links[edit | edit source]