Counselor is speaking with a client

Window of Tolerance

Definition: The idea of a Window of Tolerance is a method of conceptualizing human emotions in order to better understand not only our own emotions, but those of the people around us. The term window of tolerance describes an optimal zone of emotional balance; when a person is inside of this optimal zone (window), they are able to operate most efficiently and manage their emotions without much difficulty. This allows people to feel grounded and behave calmly. Moments of stress and conflict often push individuals out of their window of tolerance. 

There are two ways we can exit our window of tolerance, either through hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal

Hyper-arousal: this is when people become emotionally charged and activated. When we are hyper-aroused, we may become anxious, angry, panicky, or struggle with racing thoughts. 

Hypo-arousal: when someone is hypo-aroused, they may feel frozen, numb, empty, or depressed. 

Both of these emotional states are the body’s reactive attempts to protect us from perceived danger, either through shutting down or becoming very energetic and activated. When a person is in either of these states, their ability to think clearly and rationally is impacted, which can often lead to emotional reactions or decisions. 

Some individuals have a larger window of tolerance than others: 

Everyone will likely experience being pushed out of their window of tolerance throughout their lifespan, but individuals who have negative childhood experiences, trauma, parents who were emotionally unavailable, and various mental health diagnoses are more likely to exit their window of tolerance more often. 

Why is it important to understand the window of tolerance? 

This is an important concept to understand, because–as mentioned above–everyone experiences this from time to time, and exiting our window of tolerance often leads to emotional pain and actions that we later regret, such as acting out in anger, using drugs and alcohol, inappropriate spending, and becoming emotionally unavailable to our own romantic partners, friends, and children. Understanding this concept is important because it is possible to increase our window of tolerance and become better at re-entering our window of tolerance more quickly when we have been pushed out of our comfort zones. 

How can we increase our window of tolerance? 

If you struggle often with being pushed out of your window of tolerance, therapy is the most effective way to increase your window of tolerance and learn the proper skills to manage strong emotions. A therapist will work with you to better understand your emotional triggers and provide psychoeducation and guidance, as well as insight, empathy, and encouragement as they work with you to better understand yourself. 

Quick tips to begin working on increasing your own window of tolerance: 

Once again, if you struggle with this often, it is best to work with a professional, but there are things we can do on our own to better ourselves or even to begin the work before therapy starts.

  • Reduce stress as much as possible by eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep
  • Begin to gain insight and understanding of what factors most commonly influence your emotions in negative ways: it can be helpful to keep a journal of your emotions throughout the day and any events that strongly influence your emotions. 
  • Begin to practice self regulation: there are many breathing and mindfulness exercises that have been shown to help with emotion regulation, as well as many great apps to get you started. Also, it can be helpful to listen to calming, relaxing music, go for a walk, or be in nature as a way to soothe strong emotions.

Being able to regulate your emotions is a skill, and it will improve with practice. Having a better understanding of your emotions and the particular events that impact your emotions strongly on a regular basis is a great start to beginning this kind of work.