Our Tolerance Window: What is it and How Does it Affect Us?

· September 2, 2018

Imagine that you remember most of your personal experiences with an uncontrollable emotional overflow. When we’re in a hyper or hypoactive state, we stay out of our tolerance window. Being inside that window helps us perform at our optimal level.

But what exactly is this window? The tolerance window represents the range of emotional intensity that each of us is capable of experiencing. Within that range, or window, people feel safe, can learn, and can enjoy life.

What does it mean to be outside the tolerance window?

Sometimes emotions pour out of us for different reasons. These reasons include distrust, lack of strategies to cope with emotions, inability to reflect, and denial of the need to feel. The tolerance window has two limits that correspond to two extreme states of optimal activation:

  • Hyper-activation. Hyper-activation is a state in which we feel certain emotions strongly (fear, anger, joy, shame). It corresponds to an increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Hypo-activation. Hypo-activation is a state of avoiding emotions. We do this for different reasons. For example, an internal experience that blocks us or disables us from feeling new enriching experiences. It corresponds to an increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.
Woman breathing.

We’re all uniquely wired to experience life in different ways based on our own specific life experiences. People become reactive for different reasons. An example of being reactive is suffering from panic attacks or extreme rage. On the other extreme are people who are disconnected from their body and/or mind. This makes thoughts flow slowly, which makes it difficult for these people to even move.

The body acts to survive in dangerous or traumatic situations. In order to do this, the body sets mechanisms in motion that sometimes fail to return to their “normal state”. Generally, the people who are outside the window of tolerance are those who have dealt with these types of situations. Their basal state of security and relaxation is altered.


“It doesn’t matter so much what happened to us, but rather what we’ll do with what happened to us.”

-Jean Paul Sartre-

How do I stay inside the tolerance window?

Neuroscience research has shown that the only way to change how we feel is through awareness. We must be aware of our inner experience and respect it so that we can learn from it and live with it. Practicing mindfulness calms our nervous system and helps us better recognize and control our emotions.

Teachers such as Pat Ogden and Peter Levine have developed body therapies. Body therapies are a psychomotor psychotherapy and somatic experimentation technique used to recover normal functioning. Peter Levin’s therapeutic approach begins with the theory that what happened to us goes to the back of our minds to explore physical sensations. This process of carefully entering and leaving internal sensations and traumatic memories is called the “pendulum process”. It helps to gradually expand our tolerance window.

Opening our tolerance window can make us calmer and more focused on the present. This way, we can begin to enjoy new experiences and not feel so overwhelmed in particular situations. Different strategies can help us:

  • Mentalizing.
  • Containment: Through the use of mental images, for example.
  • Creating internal security sensations.
  • Positive routines: physical exercise, relaxation, etc.
  • Cognitive stimulation.
Woman opening up her tolerance window.

7 basic steps to practice emotional regulation

The “limits of our tolerance window” is a concept that Siegel (Cfr. Simón, 2011) developed. It’s related to the practice of mindfulness and allows us to stay within the tolerance window. Mindfulness develops prefrontal structures that facilitate both emotional modulation and emotional balance. This practice involves seven steps that don’t need to be followed in order:

  • Stop.
  • Breathe deeply to calm down.
  • Become aware of the emotion.
  • Accept the experience and the emotion itself.
  • Give yourself love.
  • Let go or release the emotion.
  • Choose to act or not, depending on the circumstances.

“The mind’s vision allows us to direct the flow of energy and information towards integration. This process involves the absence of disease and the appearance of wellness.”

-Siegel-

Girl with a rose looking out a window.

In conclusion, our history of attachment is what creates our tolerance window. We can see this history in our self-care guidelines. Positive self-care is considered to be an attitude or mental state in which the person accepts themselves. There’s space left for personal growth and development. Thus, living within our tolerance window allows us to enjoy a pleasant and meaningful life.