Widening The Window

In this post, Penni Osborn, Counsellor and Therapist at Anglia Counselling (Newmarket), shares with us the Window of Tolerance; what it is, how stress can take us out of it and suggestions as to how we can get back within our own, unique ‘windows’ and thus restore calm and boost our ability to cope.

What is the Window of Tolerance?

The Window of Tolerance is a concept created by Dr Dan Siegel that can be described as the ‘optimal zone’ of nervous system arousal. When we are rational, emotionally balanced, flexible, responsive and able to successfully manage life’s day to day challenges without getting too ruffled, we can be said to be operating within our Window of Tolerance.

Going Up

When stress becomes intense, our sympathetic nervous system may become triggered, firing up the ‘fight or flight’ response and pushing us up and out of our Window of Tolerance and into a state of hyper-arousal. When in this state, the thinking part of the brain goes ‘offline’, making it very difficult to think rationally, problem solve and control impulses. When fight or flight is activated, we may feel angry, irritable, anxious, restless or overwhelmed.

Going Down

Extreme stress can also cause us to nose-dive into hypo-arousal. In this instance, the parasympathetic nervous system has triggered the ‘freeze’ response, pushing us down and out of our Window of Tolerance. When in this state, we may feel emotionally numb, exhausted and depressed, needing to shut down and withdraw in order to cope.

In both instances, whether in hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal, the associated emotions can be very powerful and tough to manage.

Emotions can be tough to manage when we’re outside our window of tolerance.

Not All the Same

Everyone’s Window of Tolerance is different and can be influenced by many factors, including life experiences – particularly those in childhood – our support network, environment, health issues and coping skills. Our window can be wider in some areas of life and a narrower in others. For instance, we may cope really well with the practical demands of home and family, but not so well when there’s tension in our relationships.

Getting Back Into the Window

We can learn to become aware of when we have shifted out of our Window of Tolerance and into either a hyper or hypo-aroused state and employ healthy tactics to bring us back into our window. If we have gone ‘up’ into hyper-arousal, using techniques that soothe, calm and settle us back down can be helpful, such as going for a walk, listening to calming music, using relaxation and breathing exercises, journaling or spending time in nature. If we have gone ‘down’ into hypo-arousal, doing things that gently stimulate our body, mind and senses can be of benefit, such as getting active, connecting with others, listening to upbeat music, smelling essential oils (citrus is good) or eating something with a crunchy texture. Through noticing and balancing our internal states we expand our Window of Tolerance, building resilience and a better ability to cope with stress.

Therapy Help

For some, particularly those who have experienced trauma, the Window of Tolerance may be quite narrow, resulting in more time being spent in either hyper or hypo-aroused states. In this instance, time spent with a suitably experienced Counsellor or Therapist can be really beneficial as it can offer the provision of a safe space and connection that can support the healing process.


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Our posts are created to provide useful and supportive information, covering a variety of relevant topics. If anything you have read here resonates and you would like to explore the possibility of working one-to-one with either Bob Brotchie or Penni Osborn, please do get in touch.

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About the author
Counsellor Penni Osborn
Penni Osborn
Penni Osborn is a counsellor working at Anglia Counselling Ltd where she meets with adults, offering kind and compassionate help with anxiety, depression, CEN and difficult or overwhelming emotions, both online and in person. Penni also offers non-judgemental support and guidance for those seeking to explore their experiences in order to achieve enhanced personal growth, positive change and greater happiness.