Trauma And…

A Blog Series on All Things Trauma – Part 4

The Window of Tolerance

*Trigger warning discussion about trauma.

“I can’t focus or concentrate…I feel overwhelmed by everything and I can’t handle it…I seem to go into fight or flight or I just shut down…I am exhausted, I have no energy…What’s wrong with me?”. 

I commonly hear these statements from trauma survivors who believe something is wrong with them. They feel they have difficulty functioning or things are just more challenging to deal with.

While I meet my clients with compassion and empathy, I also find that psychoeducation, especially as it relates to trauma and its symptoms, helps clients better understand and normalize their experiences. From a trauma-informed perspective it shifts the belief from “what’s wrong with me” to “what happened to me”. 

The window of tolerance, a concept developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, is a helpful step in the process to inform and empower clients in their healing journey. It describes the space an individual has to effectively cope and deal with everyday stressors. When a person is in their window, they are able to effectively function without much difficulty. 

When the stress or trauma becomes too overwhelming, the person shifts out of their window and into a state of either hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal. A hyper-aroused response is when the fight or flight kicks in. A person might experience anxiety, feel overwhelmed, or feel intense anger. A hypo-arousal response is the feeling that the body is shutting down. A person might feel numb, zoned out, paralyzed, or exhausted. 

When an individual is in this hyper or hypo-arousal state, they are in survival mode. The part of the brain responsible for planning, concentration, and rational thinking shuts off. The person will feel overwhelmed and unable to handle things because the brain believes there is a threat and prepares the body to respond. It does not have time to evaluate, analyze, or assess information, the goal is survival. Once the person returns to their window, they are better able to handle and manage stress and their concentration and focus returns. 

Everyone has a different window of tolerance. People are generally able to stay in their window of tolerance when they feel safe. Trauma and extreme stress make it more likely that a person will experience a hyper or hypo-arousal state and over time their window of tolerance will shorten. 

Therapy can help the individual return and increase their window so the person is better able to tolerate and cope with stressors. The client learns about their window of tolerance, identifies triggers as well as hyper and hypo-arousal states, and learns to use coping strategies that return them to their window. 

Stay tuned next week for a bonus worksheet that includes strategies to return to the window of tolerance!

(NICABM, 2019)

While trauma and its symptoms can be difficult and overwhelming, the good news is that it can be treated. If you have experienced trauma or recognize some of the symptoms, you are not alone. Reach out for a free 20 minute consultation to see if we would be a good fit working together:

If you or a loved one are having a medical emergency or are in immediate danger- call 911. If it is important to let the 911 operator know if it is a mental health emergency and ask for police officers trained in crisis intervention or trained to assist people experiencing a psychiatric emergency.

Resources are available, free, and 24/7 to support you:

9-8-8 The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Dial 988. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor, text-based support, free, 24/7

SAMHSA’s National Hotline: 800-662-4357. Free, confidental, 24/7 information service for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. 

The Trevor Project: 866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860 for US and 877-330-6366 for Canada. Trans Lifeline’s Hotline is a peer support service run by trans people, for trans and questioning callers.

National Domestic Violence Hotline:

For any victims and survivors who need support, call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-7233 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto or text LOVEIS to 22522.

StrongHearts Native Helpline:

Call 1-844-762-8483. The StrongHearts Native Helpline is a confidential and anonymous culturally-appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Native Americans, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT.

The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline:

Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.