We all have a point where things get too big, too heavy, too uncomfortable … At that point we can feel cornered. We believe that we cannot take it anymore. Or we hit bottom emotionally. In all those cases, what happens to us is that we have stepped outside our window of tolerance.
What is the window of tolerance?
The window of tolerance, also known as the emotional tolerance window, is a term coined by the psychiatrist Dan Siegel to refer to our ability to face adversity, uncertainty and, in a general sense, everything that generates discomfort, whether they are situations external such as the loss of a loved one or internal states such as latent conflict.
People with a wide range of emotional tolerance can better withstand life’s shocks and discomfort, but those with a narrower window of tolerance can break down at the slightest setback or lose control and respond completely untimely.
The three activation areas of the window of tolerance
Our level of activation fluctuates according to the stage of life we are going through, as well as throughout the day. When we have to face more challenging situations, such as an important business meeting, a project delivery or a big trip, our activation level shoots up. However, on other occasions that level drops, such as when we are relaxing at home or lying on the beach sunbathing. Of course, there is also a middle ground, a baseline level.
These autonomic nervous system fluctuations can be divided into three distinct areas:
• Area of hyperactivation. In this state we experience increased emotional reactivity, we become hyper-vigilant, and intrusive memories or images may appear. We stay alert and our ability to think rationally diminishes. It corresponds, therefore, with a greater activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which acts as our “accelerator”.
• Optimal activation area. In this area we are balanced. External and internal experiences are acceptable and we feel relatively safe and at ease. This means that we are able to properly perceive information and process it, connect with our emotions and think clearly. In this area we learn, we develop and we feel good.
• Area of hypoactivation. In this area there is a kind of emotional numbness. We disconnect from our affective states and lose motivation. We have a hard time thinking clearly and being proactive. In this case, there is an increase in the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which would be our “brake”.
Graph based on the model of Govind Krishnamoorthy and Kay Ayre
These activation changes demonstrate the ability of our brain to assess the environment and respond almost automatically, so that we can adapt to events and react accordingly. This means that we subconsciously evaluate our environment to classify it as safe, threatening or neutral.
If we are in danger, we become hyperactive to be safe, but if we are in a safe place we can relax, feel our emotions and connect with others. The problem begins, obviously, when we get used to functioning in the zones of hyperarousal or hypoactivation, moving away from the midpoint.
Since this passage from one activation area to another usually occurs below our threshold of consciousness, emotions play a leading role. The amount and intensity of unpleasant emotions that we experience will largely determine our passage from one area to another. When our window of emotional tolerance is very narrow, we fall into those extremes. We run the risk of classifying almost everything as dangerous or, on the contrary, we react with apathy and anhedonia.
For this reason, some people become extremely reactive and respond to the demands of the environment with panic attacks or anger while others disconnect from their body and mind. In both cases, your brain has interpreted these changes as uncontrollable, dangerous, and deregulatory. While these responses can “save” or protect us at specific times, living in a state of hyperactivation or hypoactivation is not ideal and can lead to the appearance of different mental disorders.
How to expand our window of emotional tolerance?
The window of emotional tolerance begins to build in childhood. If we have felt confident in facing challenges and problems, we are likely to function more in the optimal activation area as adults. However, our ability to bear unpleasant emotions also varies depending on the experiences we have throughout life. Everything contributes to expanding or narrowing that margin of emotional tolerance.
The key to widening our window of tolerance is to change how we feel by becoming aware of our inner experiences, accepting them, respecting them and, of course, learning to live with them. That means that we must not flee from unpleasant emotions but learn to flow through them, so that our brain stops perceiving them as a threat. The practice of mindfulness will help us to calm our nervous system, recognize our emotions and manage them better.
On the other hand, the psychologist Peter Levine has developed a therapeutic approach based on the exploration of physical sensations that will also help us to expand our window of emotional tolerance. Basically, we must take an unpleasant or painful memory and go in and out of it by focusing our attention on the emotions and physical sensations that we experience. This way we can feel more comfortable with these states, so that they do not generate an unnecessary alert.
In this case, the important thing is to work on the limits. If we move outside the limits, the experience can be retraumatizing, but if we always stay in a very comfortable zone, we will not be able to expand our threshold of acceptance of unpleasant emotions. Therefore, the ideal is to start with memories or activities that we can manage, so that we progressively expand our window of tolerance.
However, not only exposure to adverse situations and unpleasant emotions broadens our window of emotional tolerance. Building a pleasant environment in which we feel safe and comfortable will also help us relax and rediscover that necessary middle point of activation. Including meaningful rituals and routines in our lives that make us feel good will also help.
When we open our window of tolerance, we can better react to adversity, the unknown, or the uncertain. We will not lose control, we do not despair or think that it is the end of the world but we stay calmer and more balanced, so that we can better face that challenge.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015) El cuerpo lleva la cuenta. Cerebro, mente y cuerpo en la superación del trauma. Barcelona: Eleftheria.
Levine, P. A. (2010) In an unspoken voice – How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Ogden, P., Minton, K. & Pain, C. (2009) El trauma y el cuerpo. Un modelo sensoriomotriz de psicoterapia. Bilbao:Desclée de Brouwer.
Siegel, D. (1999) The Developing Mind. New York & London: The Guilford Press.