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The window of tolerance

The Window of Tolerance is the optimal zone of “arousal” in which a person can function and cope most effectively and is best able to respond to stressful situations. Every person’s Window of Tolerance is different. When in their Window, people can:

  • Think more clearly
  • Process information better 
  • Concentrate better
  • Make more informed decisions

Your Window of Tolerance may become much narrower following chronic stress or trauma, meaning it becomes easier to get pushed out of your Window and into a state of over-arousal or under-arousal.

"The window of tolerance" illustrated by Graham Roumieu

Survival responses


Over-arousal (also known as hyperarousal) activates the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress involving:

  • Aggression
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased shakiness or muscle tension

Hyperaroused responses include:

  • Cry for help: When your body detects a threatening situation and instinctively becomes prepared to defend itself
  • Fight: When you’re angry or irritated and you engage in impulsive and/or aggressive behaviours 
  • Flight: When you feel denial or anxiety. This stress may cause you to evade, omit, or sabotage to escape a stressful situation


Under-arousal (also known as hypoarousal) can involve:

  • Increased numbing
  • Feeling withdrawn from your surroundings
  • Feeling detached from your body or environment, or as though things around you aren’t real
  • Not feeling in control of your body’s movements

Hypoaroused responses include:

  • Freeze: Overwhelming stress can lead to a freeze response, which involves feeling emotionally detached or withdrawn from your environment
  • Submit: This involves surrendering to the consequences of a stressful situation when your body feels too overwhelmed to fight or flee.