Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist


The Window of Tolerance

A Tool to Identify and Manage Triggers

By Dario Martinez

The Window of Tolerance is a useful tool from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy that helps us identify when we’ve entered a triggered state. By definition, triggers cause us to lose control of our emotions, thoughts and behavior. The stronger the trigger, the less control we have.

This can obviously be problematic and potentially dangerous. An inability to control our behavior, coupled with powerful emotions that typically accompany trauma triggers can easily lead to a wide range of serious outcomes—everything from agitation and anxiety—all the way up to violent rage and full fledged panic attacks.

If you’ve ever lost control of your behavior and said or done things that you later regretted, you were probably in a triggered state. If you find that certain situations lead to panic attacks or cause you to fly off the handle in a “blind rage,” you’ve lost control of your emotions and you’re definitely triggered. 
To learn more about triggers, please click here.

The Window of Tolerance (pictured below) provides a powerful first step in learning how to reclaim a sense of control over emotions, thoughts and behavior:

The grey area in the center of the diagram represents a non-triggered state. This is the “window” of experience that we can tolerate without getting triggered. It’s also known as “the optimal arousal zone.” Some of us have really wide windows, while others have very narrow windows.

We know that we’re in our “window” when we have complete control over our thoughts, emotions and behavior.  The minute we start to feel “foggy,” overly emotional and/or cut off from our capacity to think clearly; something has probably triggered us and we’re outside of our “optimal arousal zone.”

We can identify when we’ve entered a triggered state by learning how to monitor our “arousal level.” There are three distinct levels of arousal that indicate someone is triggered:

Hyperarousal—located above the grey “window” in the diagram. This is a state of high agitation, emotion and energy. If the trigger is strong enough, people in a state of hyperarousal can automatically slip into one of the three “active” survival responses: Fight, Flight or Cry for Help. The diagram below illustrates a “spectrum” of behaviors and emotions that are clear indications of hyperarousal:

Trauma Arrow

Hypoarousal—located below the “window.” This is a state of checking out or “going away.” On the surface, it looks like low energy or very little arousal. For some people, Hypoarousal can lead to out of body experiences. In these cases, people describe violent experiences in which their consciousness "floats" above their body and watches the experience unfold from a safer vantage point. The survival response associated with hypoarousal is Submit. This is a “passive” survival response because it's basically a mental and physical  “collapse” that serves as a buffer against intense pain. The diagram below illustrates a “spectrum” of behaviors and emotions that are clear indications of hypoarousal:

Bi-phasic—some people do a combination of hyper and hypoarousal. This is very common amongst individuals who’ve spent significant time in prison. They may have a natural inclination to move toward hyperarousal, but because high levels of arousal are dangerous and potentially fatal in prison, they’ve learned to clamp down on their arousal level and automatically transition into a state of hypoarousal. The survival response most closely associated with bi-phasic arousal is Freeze.

Submit and Freeze can look very similar on the outside, but the internal experience is very different. For submit, there’s a “deadening” or collapse that happens internally. Freeze, on the other hand, feels highly active on the inside—with lots of adrenaline and energy. “A deer in the headlight” response is a good example of how Freeze might look and feel.

All of us have a dominant arousal level that we automatically gravitate toward when we get triggered. It’s important to identify where we go because this is what helps us determine which treatment strategies will be most effective in the development of trigger management skills.

People who tend to gravitate toward hyperarousal need tools to bring their arousal level down. This can include mindfulness practices like meditation, breathing exercises and Yoga. People who are more prone to hypoarousal need tools to increase their energy level. This can include things like exercise and active meditation practices.

Please feel free to
contact me here if you have questions or if you’d like to schedule a free 30-minute initial consultation.

Copyright © 2020, Dario Martinez. All rights reserved.