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The window of tolerance is a model often used to understand the after-effects of trauma. With a narrow tolerance window, you quickly switch between over- and under-activation; between acting out, restlessness and aggression on the one hand - and depression, numbness and dissociation on the other. 

Image: Lane Jackman of Unsplash



The window of tolerance easily explained  

When you are within your tolerance window, this means that you function normally emotionally. In this state, one can absorb and respond to information in an adequate way. 

On the other hand, when you are above your tolerance window, you experience overactivation. This can take the form of the body's fight-flight response firing, and one can act with agitation, aggression, acting out.  

When you are below your tolerance window, you experience underactivation. In this state, it is the body's freezing response that takes over. This can take the form of submission, numbness, feelings of being dead, or dissociation. 

 





 

A key concept in connection with trauma

People who have experienced trauma often have a narrow tolerance window, so it takes little before they disappear from the zone for where they function well emotionally. Many people can swing quickly between over- and under-activation, which provides a basis for complex and often seemingly incomprehensible behavioral patterns.

Nils Eide-Midtsand writes in Journal of the Norwegian Psychological Association:

When the child (...) is exposed to serious stress over time, at the same time as the support to regulate the intense affects is lacking - as can be the case with violence, abuse and neglect in close relationships - the consequences can be a hypersensitivity in the (parts of the brain) initiates stress, as well as an underdevelopment in the areas that will regulate or modulate such responses. 





In other words, the trauma experiences can "sit" in the system, and contribute to a narrower tolerance window.

 

Roots in attachment psychology

Much has been written about the tolerance window. Nils Eide-Midtsand writes:

The tolerance window model basically does not come from the trauma field. It has its roots in attachment psychology, as a description of natural activation and affect fluctuations in children, and as a pictorialization of what are the caregiver's central tasks.  

Infants have a narrower tolerance window than adults, and can be easily overwhelmed. He further writes:

The care task then becomes to regulate the child's conditions and affects - in the literature often referred to as secondary regulation or regulatory support.

 

Regulatory support

Several psychologists focus on the fact that repeated experiences with good regulatory support means that the child gradually develops his or her own repertoire to regulate himself - his own self-regulatory capacity.

However, when this regulatory support fails, as it can in the case of repeated and persistent traumatic strains in interpersonal relationships throughout childhood and adolescence, this can contribute to the child's regulatory difficulties. 

Nils Eide-Midtsand continues: 

Many developmentally traumatized children develop behavioral problems, and it is often these that bring them into contact with the support system. Understandably, it is also the problematic behavior that the children's caregivers and teachers first and foremost want help to overcome. 

 

What can help in better regulation

The big question for many is what can be done to improve their own ability to regulate, whether they have a narrow tolerance window, or how to help children and young people with such difficulties. 

In his article, Eide-Midtsand writes that a central perspective is about "turning the arrow away from the child's behavior and back towards ourselves."

The condition we have inside ourselves becomes absolutely decisive for how well we manage to regulate the child's condition. 

In other words, self-regulation is necessary for parents and caregivers to also support the child in his or her development to better regulatory abilities.

Should you as an adult have a narrow tolerance window, psychological treatment can be a support in exploring what triggers the difficult emotional states and behaviors.

Much is also about gaining a better understanding of oneself and one's symptoms, and finding more constructive ways to regulate oneself in the tolerance window, when one has slipped into either over- or under-activated states. Here, good relationships with other people can time be just such a corrective experience, whether this happens within the framework of a therapy or in completely different settings.  

 

A relevant term also in the absence of known trauma

In other words, the term tolerance window originally came from attachment psychology, while today it is often used in the context of understanding the aftermath of trauma.

But what if you have a narrow tolerance window, but do not really know that there have been special traumas in life, or without there being a significant failure in the parents 'or caregivers' regulatory support?

Then it can be good to remember that the tolerance window is first and foremost a model, a way of describing emotional states, and that everyone has a tolerance window. All people will experience slipping outside their tolerance window at times, and here stress, little sleep, and other conditions can come into play. 

It is important to recognize that the tolerance window can also be a useful model for people who are struggling with their emotional regulation - regardless of diagnosis or prehistory.

For many, it can be a good help to get to know themselves better, so that you become better able to regulate yourself when the depression takes over. Therefore, behavioral activation is also a key technique on the way out of depression. And you can learn to regulate yourself when you are overstimulated or overactive. It can, for example, be about taking a break in time, or getting energy out in more constructive ways than through acting out.

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