Window of tolerance

In the manual, we will use our knowledge to help the survivor by giving him tools so that he can learn about his trauma reactions and how to do grounding techniques to be able to stay or get back into the window when he is out of control.

16.12 2021

The window of tolerance

This is a model for understanding reactions to stress and trauma. Being within the window indicates that we are in the ideal state of emotional response. In this state we can absorb and respond to information effectively. Above the window we experience Hyper-arousal (often associated with the body’s ‘fight and flight’ response). Below the window, we experience Hypo-arousal (associated with freeze, ‘playing dead’, submission and dissociation responses). Traumatised survivors have narrow windows of tolerance, are quick to leave their window, and may swing between Hyper- and Hypo-arousal.

To understand the window of tolerance better

The window of tolerance is one of the most useful models we have the field of trauma.

Both because it explains trauma reactions in a straightforward manner but also because it is a good concrete tool to use in the direct contact with people who need help.

The model is very simple. The part between these two lines shows the level of activation. All people have a zone or a kind of window in which one is perfectly activated, this means that the person is in a state that where he or she is able to be present in the concrete situation, to be able to concentrate and to learn.

If you are above the window of tolerance, we say that you are Hyper-activated. This means that your activation is too high. And if you are below your window of tolerance, we can say that you are Hypo-activated. This is when you are under-activated and your energy is too low.

For most of us, we are occasionally both up here and down here, and when this happens we often have some strategies that will allow us to regulate ourselves back into the window of tolerance before the discomfort becomes too unbearable.

Traumatic memories can trigger a flight/fight response. This is a Hyper-activation reaction, where the activation is flying to the ceiling and the body is ready to flee from, or fight the threats.

If we are frightened of something, the body reacts automatically by shutting off certain activities and reinforcing others. We may, for example, know that the heart is beating louder and faster and that we breathe faster. The body feeds blood to the brain, arms and legs. Muscles prepare for fight or flight, while activity in the brain shifts from the parts that help us to think through complex problems and to those parts that help us to react in life-threatening situations. We shift from an “everyday state” in which we relate to everyday activities to an “emergency situation” where we are on guard, ready to fight, to escape, and/or stiffen completely

If is not possible to fight or flee, for example if you are a small unprotected child, you will rely on the most basic survival strategy that we have – to freeze. This is the same mechanism as we see in a number of small animals being totally lifeless when they are attacked.

This is the Hypo-activation reaction in which activation decreases to a minimum and you shut yourself down, what we call immobilized.

When a serious threat comes too close and is overwhelming, when there is no opportunity to escape or fight back, then the body and head react to shut off to protect themselves. Reacting thus with the under-activation instead of an over-activation. When this happens, the heart rate decreases and breathing drastically falls, muscle tone decreases, and you go into a sort of hibernation state. The body stores energy by going into this automatic state of collapse, which is often called the “playing dead.” Some animals do this when they fall “dead” in front of another attacking animal. There is an automatic, unconscious physical strategy to ensure survival when there is no other way out. Some people experience such submission during or after a traumatic event. It is accompanied by emotional and physical numbness, little or no thinking, a form of not caring, total disconnection, and sometimes even loss of consciousness.

A very appropriate way to understand trauma is that it leads to a narrower window of tolerance and that it takes very little for a person to go above the window in a Hyper-activation with much turmoil or to go below the window into a Hypo-activation with emptiness and disconnection from the outside world.

We also know that traumatic stress often weakens some areas in the brain including, among other things, the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus which help us to regulate down from Hyper-activation or up from Hypo-activation and that is why it is more difficult to get out of these conditions if you are below or above the window.

The regulatory areas of the brain are not fully developed in a child. It is developing through adolescence and through sensitive care. Partly because our caregivers make us safe when we are anxious or afraid, therefore, it is particularly serious when it is the caregiver who is the threat.

Children who have lived under such conditions will often have a very narrow window of tolerance. In addition, the regulatory areas of the brain will remain underdeveloped, so the child is left completely destitute when it comes to dealing with the difficult Hyper or Hypo-reactions.

For children, this can provide a confusing diagnostic picture because Hyper-reactions may show up as behavioral problems or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) issues or Hypo-reaction might be understood as depression and alternation between Hypo and Hyper might be understood as bipolar disorder.

This metaphor, the window of tolerance, can help families with children to understand when their child goes above or below the window and could be used to analyze different difficult situations to what caused the activation level to rise or fall.

What happened when you were above the window, when you were so upset? And what did you do to make the curve go down below the window?

The window can also be used to evaluate various strategies for regulating back into the window of tolerance from Hyper-activation or Hypo-activation.

Finally, the window of tolerance is useful because it provides a common language and a visual focal point for different professions and services that might otherwise work from different perspectives.