Expanding Your Window of Tolerance

Tiles spelling "tolerance" connected to the concept of the window of tolerance.

Expanding Your Window of Tolerance [Transcript]

This blog will explore expanding your window of tolerance and how it relates to your nervous system. First, let’s get familiar with your window.  Your window of tolerance is when your nervous system feels safe, secure, grounded, is able to tolerate the natural ebbs and flows of life and is able to access emotion and reason. It’s not just a state where we feel calm all the time.  We can access all the emotions within the limits of our window of tolerance. Additionally, if you’re able to breathe and to slow down your thoughts, you’re in your window of tolerance.

People who experience trauma might have a narrower window of tolerance and might spend more time outside of it. In terms of expanding your window of tolerance, there are things that we can work on to make it larger. Because trauma rewires our brain, this ties into the concept of “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity applies to when our brain is open to that rewiring.  In polyvagal theory, we call this state “ventral vagal.” This state allows our brain to rewire.  

If you want to expand your window of tolerance, you want to spend more time in that window of tolerance. To do this, you might create rituals around connecting to people, animals, nature, art, or music. You might prioritize things that feel playful and connect with your inner child. You might prioritize self-care and work on body awareness by doing exercises that have you mindfully connecting with your bodily sensations.  


When we go above our window of tolerance, we’re in hyperarousal. This is also called “fight or flight.” It’s a state where the nervous system goes in response to stress or a threat. In polyvagal theory, this is called the “sympathetic state” of the nervous system. When this happens, we might feel angry, irritable, hypervigilant, or anxious. We might have racing thoughts, feel restless, or have difficulty breathing. When we’re in this state, the part of our brain that handles executive function can shut down. This really impacts our ability to make decisions. 

Read more about managing emotional stress here.

When we’re in hyperarousal and want to return to our window of tolerance, there are some practices that we can engage in. We can think of it as down regulating. Some ways to down regulate include shaking your hands, raising and dropping on your heels, and dancing to 30 seconds to your favorite song. You can try orienting to your environment through connecting with the five senses. What can you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. You can also try splashing cold water on your face or lengthening your exhalations.  These are all things that can help us come back into our window of tolerance.  

Man contemplating expanding his window of tolerance


Sometimes, we might go below our window of tolerance into a state called “hypoarousal.”  It’s also called “freeze state” and is a response to a perceived stress or threat. It’s called “dorsal state” in polyvagal theory and is when are we go into a shutdown mode for safety. We might feel overwhelmed, emotionally numb, depressed, without motivation, or just generally shut down. 

When we’re in this state, it can be very hard to engage, and we want to think about up regulating back into out window of tolerance. We want to think about stimulating rather than soothing the five senses. You might want to try eating a salty or sour food or smelling a sharper scent like peppermint. You could also try could also be humming, gargling, or drinking water. These activities stimulate your throat, which is connected to your vagal tone and could help in regulation. Stretching, singing a stilly song, narrating your actions, or laughing are also options to help us regulate. 

How can we incorporate these into our lives? How can we remember that we have these really simple things to try in the moment? You can think of it like rituals. When it comes to expanding our window of tolerance, is there a ritual that you can incorporate even just once a week?  Can you incorporate 2 percent of it? Can you find your growing edge? Because growing doesn’t happen hanging out there in space. We want to find the very edge of where we’re growing and just build outward a little bit at a time. 

Remember that anything you’re doing to increase your awareness of what state your nervous system is in, what it’s feeling, and what it needs, is going to expand your window.  Always remember that we’re wired for connection, so if it’s hard to do these things alone, that also makes sense. You can seek others, work with a therapist, or attend a meditation group to start regulating practices. 

Are you interested in exploring your window of tolerance? Reach out to myTherapyNYC to find out which of our therapists would be a good fit for you!

What are some ways you regulate yourself when you are outside of your window of tolerance? Join the conversation in the comments below!

Victoria Haller - NYC Therapist


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