Psychiatrist Dan Siegel developed a model called the “Window of Tolerance” in 1999 to describe an area in which each person is able to maintain emotional regulation, think clearly, and function effectively. Each person has their own window and their own base line within that window. Some people’s windows are broad, and they are able to think clearly on a regular basis while others have a smaller window and may struggle with emotional regulation. Likewise, some people’s baseline within that window is in the middle while others are higher or lower. Those with a high baseline tend to lean towards being more anxious, and these with a lower baseline tend to lean towards being more depressed. As long as someone can remain in their Window of Tolerance, even if they move close to the perimeters, they can continue to self-regulate and functioning.
The challenge comes when people move beyond their Window of Tolerance and are not able to regulate emotions or think clearly, and therefore, to not function effectively. People in this state often move into dysregulation and some into a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal. People who experience hyperarousal tend to fight, flee, be hyper-vigilant and/or be in a frenzy, while people who experience hypoarousal tend to freeze, dissociate, and/or shut down. In these hyper/hypo states, the person’s body automatically takes over and functions for the person. This is especially true for those who have experienced trauma, abuse, and/or neglect.
The key to learning one’s Window of Tolerance is to 1) identify these perimeters where one begins to not think clearly, 2) develop plans of actions to help one return when they have gone beyond their perimeters, and 3) work at growing one’s overall Window. To return to one’s Window of Tolerance, one can utilize mindfulness and/or grounding techniques. Some people also find medication helpful. The particularities of how one returns varies depending on if one goes above or below his/her perimeters and the size of their overall window. Also, what may help regulate one person may do nothing for another. Thus, it is important for people to explore what works for them. To work at expanding one’s overall Window of Tolerance, one can work on one’s differentiation of self and one-on-one relationships in one’s family of origin and extended family.
It is important to remain nonjudgmental in thinking about the size of one’s Window of Tolerance. Those with smaller Windows of Tolerance often have this from no fault of their own. Contributing factors consist of, but are not limited to, trauma, neglect, abuse, multigenerational transmission, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, one’s level of differentiation, and/or societal emotional process. What is important, is that people realize that wherever they are, they can work to expand their Window of Tolerance in which they are able to increase their self-regulation and emotion tolerance. This in turn, will help one think clearer and function more effectively.
“Window of Tolerance” (2016, August 8). Retrieved from
Nicabm. 2017. “How Trauma Can Affect Your Window of Tolerance”. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavior Medicine.
The Rev. Vanessa Ellison MSW, MDiv, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Richmond, Virginia. She currently works as a therapist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) University Counseling Services and at Richmond Therapy Center. She first learned about Bowen Theory while attending Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, learned how to apply it clinically while working on a master’s degree at VCU’s School of Social Work, and has attended workshops at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in DC. She began participating in the LIM workshops in 2006 and joined the LIM Faculty in 2018.
Leadership in Ministry is part of the Center for Lifelong Learning’s Pastoral Excellence Program, with workshops in Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Lynchburg VA, and Kansas City MO.