Therapy and the Window of Tolerance

Everyone experiences emotions, they enable us to mediate our experience of the universe and attach meaning to it. In simple terms experiences that make us happy we consider to be good or positive and experiences that make us sad or mad we classify as bad or negative.
Developments in imaging technology have allowed us to recognize the relationship between our emotional experience of an event and our ability to effectively respond the situation we find ourselves in.
There is an ideal state of emotional response that allows us to most effectively take in information and respond effectively to it. That is state of emotional engagement id called the window of tolerance.
When we are in our window of tolerance we are not too activated
(Hyperaroused) nor we are shut down (Hypoaroused) in response to a difficult set of circumstances. People who have experienced trauma often swing between these two extremes; they are emotionally disregulated. In the hyperaroused state and individual may find themselves being chronically anxious always concerned that another bad experienced is around the corner, the make experience vivid recollections of the bad experience. In the hypoaroused state the individual will feel completely numb unable to feel any emotions whatsoever. The first state may lead to a chronic anxiety disorder such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, the second to Depression.
Therapy helps people to learn the skills to increase their ability to manage (regulate) their emotions more effectively and so function within their “window of tolerance”. During treatment the job of the therapist is to push at the boundaries of the “window of tolerance” to assist the patient to process the difficult event and the emotions associated with it. This process allows the patient to expand their window of tolerance which in turn enables them to increase their ability to effectively respond to a greater range of circumstances life is likely to present.
In begin therapy by teaching patients to learn how to observe themselves, to replace their tendency to judge themselves harshly with learning how to be compassionate and curious about their reactions. I invite patients to develop a neutral observer persona who notices how they physically feel inside their bodies, what they are thinking and feeling in their heads, and what they do. In this way patients learn to separate themselves from what they are experiencing and to recognize that they have to possibility of choosing how to respond rather than simply react to the circumstances they find themselves in.
This process is also helpful in processing past painful experiences recognizing that these experiences although very distressing happened to the individual and need not define them.
Therapy does not change what happened to us but it does enable us to trade dysfunctional behaviors which were adaptive in the past, into new behaviors which are effective in the present.
For more information about “affect management” and the “window of tolerance” check out