Trauma healing is a unique and personal journey. Something that is helpful to understand and get familiar with is the Window of Tolerance, sometimes alternatively called the Window of Resilience. This term was first introduced by Dr. Daniel Siegel in 1999 in his book The Developing Mind. I apply the concept of The Window of Tolerance to my EMDR Therapy as a therapist at Prosper Counseling in Philadelphia, PA.
The Window of Tolerance
The Window of Tolerance refers to an ideal zone of activation where emotions ebb and flow and a person is still able to go on with normal activities and remain connected with others and themselves. At the top of this window is a state known as “hyperarousal” and at the bottom of the window is a state known as “hypoarousal”. Hyperarousal and hypoarousal are automatic responses of our nervous system in service of our survival.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Our autonomic nervous system has two major branches – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Hyperarousal is what is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system. In this state, the body is mobilizing all resources toward action against a perceived threat.
When hyperaroused, you might notice:
- Racing thoughts
- Inability to sleep
- Digestive issues
- Inability to relax
- Chronic pain
Hypoarousal is what is commonly known as the “freeze” response of the parasympathetic nervous system. In this state, the body is shutting down in response to a perceived threat. An example of this is a mouse or possum “playing dead” in the face of a predator.
When hypoaroused, you might notice:
- Feeling shut down
- Flat affect
All of us have a nervous system. The goal of getting to know our nervous system and what all of these zones feel like in our bodies is to expand our window of tolerance or zone of resilience.
The Stoplight Approach for The Window of Tolerance
I encourage my clients to think of their nervous system as a special stoplight. The hyperaroused and hypoaroused states are red light zones. The window of tolerance is the green light zone. In between are yellow zones – zones where we are reaching the edge of our window. This is not easy work. It takes time, practice, and support. For many of my clients who have experienced trauma, the red zones are most familiar and the window of resilience is very narrow. Learning the signs that you are entering the yellow zone and practicing different techniques and tools to bring you back into the green zone increases your resilience.
The Window of Tolerance and Phase 4 of EMDR
It’s important for clients to be aware of their window of tolerance and when they are “out of the window.” Phase 4 of EMDR, the phase of reprocessing a distressing event with bilateral stimulation, requires a client to have one foot in the here and now and one foot in the past for optimal reprocessing. If a client is out of their window, it’s best to pause and practice coming back into their window. Oftentimes I’ll check with a client about what’s happening for them or if it’s okay to continue when I suspect they may be in the yellow zone. Sometimes simply asking the client to tell me about something or someone that I know is a positive resource for that person can help the client come back into their window.
Expanding the Window of Tolerance or Resilience
Trauma disorients. Trauma triggers hurl us into the past and we can no longer orient ourselves to our present safety. In order to expand our window of tolerance, we need to increase our capacity to return to a sense of relative safety. We can do that by orienting to internal and external safety cues.
Trauma therapist and educator, Linda Thai, encourages us to ask ourselves, “am I unsafe or am I uncomfortable?” I now ask my clients to check in with this question as well. If we are able to ask ourselves this question and orient ourselves to the present, we can take in an accurate picture of what is happening in the here and now.
So how do we orient ourselves to the present moment?
Here are some body-based practices that can help:
- Take in your environment through your eyes. Allow yourself to gaze out a window and take in the horizon. Coming back to the room, notice your exits and the route from where you are to your exits. Notice the spaces behind you, above you, in front of you, and below you.
- Notice what you are in contact with. This could be your feet making contact with the ground. Name it – “I feel my feet making contact with the ground.” It could be your bottom on the chair. Name it – “I feel my bottom making contact with the chair.”
- Use your five senses. Look around the room and name all the objects that are a certain color. Is there anything you can smell (a candle, essential oils, etc)? Do you have a mint or candy that you can put in your mouth and notice the taste of? Name several things you can hear. Gently squeeze the outline of your hand or arms or legs.
A helpful metaphor when thinking about expanding our window of tolerance or resilience is to think of hyperarousal and hypoarousal as opposite sides of a river bank. If our window is narrow, we can’t help but run our canoe into the shorelines or maybe even get stuck on one side or the bank or the other (or both at the same time!). However, when we expand our window of tolerance, there is more space and distance between the banks to navigate the ups and downs of daily life without going into hyper or hypo arousal. Every time we recognize we’re out of our window and practice returning to our green zone, we increase the size of the river.
Daily Practices to Improve our Window of Tolerance
It’s important to recognize that our windows fluctuate day to day depending on many factors. Being sick, under a deadline, or hungry can narrow our window.
Some daily and basic practices that can help increase our capacity to handle the ups and downs of daily life are:
- Getting enough sleep
- Eating nutritious and energizing food
- Drinking enough water
- Connecting with someone or something (a pet or nature)
- Play and laughter
If you recognize that your window of tolerance is narrow and would like support in expanding your window, we invite you to reach out. Prosper Counseling LLC helps adult individuals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey increase resilience and resolve trauma.
Learn More About The Window of Tolerance With Trauma Therapy Online in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
Understanding The Window of Tolerance is a key component to healing from trauma and moving forward with your life. If you are struggling to live your best life because you are stuck in the cycle of reliving past trauma, trauma therapy online can help. At Prosper Counseling our therapists are here to guide you on your journey to healing. Follow the steps below to get started.
- Get to know more about me here.
- Use the convenient online contact form to set up a consultation.
- Set up your first appointment and begin healing!
Other Mental Health Services at Prosper Counseling
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