Dr Heather Dyson
The Window of Tolerance
The Window of Tolerance (aka the River of Life and The Tale of Two Lands)
What is the Window of Tolerance (WoT?)
Put simply, the WoT is how much stress we can manage before we become either hyperaroused (agitated, angry, anxious) or hypoaroused (dissociated, numb, cut off). It was first coined by Dan Siegel, who described this “window” of arousal in which individuals are able to remain calm, present, and connected. When we are within this optimal state, we can regulate our emotions and integrate all the information coming in via our senses, as well as our internal (thoughts and feelings) experiences. Outside of this “window”, we can become dysregulated, meaning that our fight/flight/freeze response is activated and we may respond as though we are in physical danger.
The image below is how most professionals depict the WoT…
This can be a useful way for us to picture our WoT but can be difficult for some individuals to relate it to their own lives. Consequently, the rest of this article is going to try and give the same explanation but attempt to relatable to our “everyday lives”.
The River of Life
Most of us will be familiar with the metaphor of life being like a river. We can find ourselves cruising along, taken by the current through our day, with events happening around us may make us float up or down towards the edges of our river. Sometimes, we might experience something which makes us paddle faster, and sometimes we might experience something which makes us slow right down and simply enjoy the ride. Sometimes it’s our own thoughts and feelings that can steer us up or down.
At the top of our river, the current is fast! Our hearts beat more quickly, we’re more energetic and excitable. It can feel really wonderful for a while, but it’s also exhausting and can be overwhelming. Down towards the bottom, the water flows much more slowly and gently. This can feel really relaxing, but if we stay here to long, we may feel that we have no energy at all and we can struggle to feel motivated to do anything. It is at the outer most edges of the river that we experience our “Two Lands”, The Land of Fire (Hyperarousal) and The Land of Ice (Hypoarousal).
When our rivers are wide, it’s easy for us to paddle any way we wish. However, when we have experienced trauma, or we are going through a stressful period in our lives, our rivers can become extremely narrow and much more difficult to navigate. This means that we are at increased risk of being pushed out of the river and onto the lands.
Land of Fire (Hyperarousal)
In the Land of Fire we can feel aggressive, anxious, frightened, out of control and/or overwhelmed. In this land, we may be extremely reactive and struggled to regulate our emotions, thoughts and our behaviour. To “escape” the Land of Fire (reduce our hyperarousal) we can engage in various grounding strategies to help to “cool us down” or lower our physiological (heart rate, breathing etc) arousal.
Abdominal breathing/Belly breathing
Splashing cold water onto our face to activate our Diving reflex (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diving_reflex)
Listen to music which helps us to feel calmer
Going out for a walk/engaging in exercise
Land of Ice (Hypoarousal)
In the Land of Ice we can feel frozen, withdrawn, inactive, disconnection, empty, or dissociated. In this land we may find it incredibly difficult to actively engage with life and our own internal world. It may be difficult for us to connect emotionally with others and find enjoyment in things/events that we previously did. To “escape” the Land of Ice (Increase our arousal) we can engage in grounding strategies which help to “heat us up” or increase our physiological arousal.
Dancing around the room
Going out for a walk/engaging in exercise
Watching funny videos/movies
Calling a friend.
How does trauma & adversity impact our Rivers/WoTs?
It can be easy to think of our rivers/WoTs are being static and fixed. However, depending on your experiences growing up, and later in life, your river/WoT can either grow (so you can increasingly tolerate more stress) or shrink. As infants, our rivers/WoTs are very small so that even minor discomfit causes a strong reaction. It is through good-enough parenting that the infant is taken to the edges of their tolerances and consequently starts to be able to withstand more stress. This is the reason that as adults we don’t burst into tears over very minor situations.
Unfortunately, not everyone experiences good-enough parenting, and those of us who do experience good-enough parenting can still experience trauma later in life. Trauma, adversity, and attachment disruptions can make the river narrow, and it can feel impossible to stay in the safety of the calm waters. For example, if someone was in a car accident, they may no longer be able to tolerate getting into a car, or be near a road, something they were more than happy to do the day before. That is because their ability to tolerate stress has diminished and they find themselves either hyper-or hypo-aroused.
One way to help manage this is to engage in activities which actively help us to regulate our emotions and monitor where we are within our rivers. Are we near the edges, or in the middle? Taking time to engage in activities which give us a break from the river (something which makes us feel happy) can help to re-energise us, meaning that we’re more able to face the challenges that life throws at us.
Working to widen the River/WoT
If you decided to take that first step towards engaging in therapy, you may well hear your psychologist talk about “stabilisation” a lot. They are likely to start working with you to increase your ability to remain within you WoT, as well as helping you to push at those edges, consequently, making your WoT bigger. Strategies such as mindfulness, abdominal breathing, grounding, and self-soothing techniques can all help up to improve our ability to tolerate stress and stay within our WoT. Once your therapist has established that you can remain within your WoT, it may then be the time to engage in more focused therapy such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) or EMDR.