Article – Expanding the Window of Tolerance [Capacity]

What is the Window of Tolerance?

The Window of Tolerance, a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, describes the optimal zone of arousal for our brain and body to function effectively. It helps us understand normal reactions, especially after facing challenges.

The size of this window reflects our individual tolerance for fluctuations in mood, energy, and life’s demands. When we stay within this optimal zone, we can function at our best.

When we are within our Window of Tolerance – we are essentially in the optimal zone (as seen above).

In a balanced nervous system state, with our prefrontal cortex online, we can rationally and effectively adapt to external stressors. 

However, the accumulation of stress and/or feeling in a state of heightened stress can shrink our Window of Capacity.  Once pushed outside, our pre-frontal cortex is off-line as all the energy goes into survival.

For children and young people who have experienced significant stress, it is common for their brain to become ‘stuck’ in high levels of Activation or Deactivation.

It’s important to remember that the size of our Window of Tolerance isn’t a choice. We’re all born with different brain capacities, and these can be shaped by adverse experiences throughout life, from early childhood onwards. Attachment styles, neurodiversity, and early emotional learning also play a role in brain development, influencing the size of our Window.

Ideas for moving from Hyper-arousal back into the Window of Tolerance

When experiencing hyperarousal, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part) is crucial. Activities that promote grounding, soothing, and containment are highly beneficial.

However, since everyone responds differently and has unique preferences for calming down, it’s important to develop a personal toolkit of skills. Regularly practicing these ensures they become a reliable resource.

Here are some examples:

Ideas for moving Hypo-arousal back into the Window of Tolerance

Here are some self-care strategies to help the nervous system increase alertness and focus in the present moment.

Look for activities that provide healthy stimulation for the body and mind, or that safely ground in the present. We all respond differently, so finding activities are enjoyed is key.

Again, develop a personal toolkit of these strategies and practice them regularly. This way, you’ll have reliable resources to pull from when needed.

The goal is to gently stimulate the pre-frontal cortex and bring it back into the present moment in a safe way.

Here are some examples to get you started:

Final Thoughts

  • We all have our own unique capacity to deal with life and that should be honoured and supported
  • If the narrow window of capacity it due to adverse childhood experiences – the facilitator needs to ensure they are trauma informed in their approach, understanding how difficult it can be for the child/young person
  • If the window is narrow due to having a sensitive neurodivergent nervous system – the facilitator needs to take into account every element of the child.  A Whole Child Approach – attachment, sensory, emotional, social connection, and self, so that they can fully meet the child’s individual needs.  This narrow window, could be the perfect size for them and again, this needs to be honoured.

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