The Window of Tolerance: Mapping Your Nervous SystemSep 16, 2023
In this post we’re going to share one of a series of useful maps and models of the nervous system.
These frameworks can help you understand more of what’s going on in your body and brain as you move through your life, and enable you to begin to better regulate your nervous system so that you can increase your sense of somatic safety.
Let’s dive in.
The window of tolerance
The window of tolerance is basically a map of the nervous system's three main arousal states.
This map can be really valuable for helping us to track our nervous system responses and begin to navigate them in real-time.
The map of the window of tolerance looks like this:
You’ll see three main zones:
The central zone, ‘optimal activation’, is the window of tolerance itself – where we are feeling a sense of somatic safety, with all the features that brings.
When we are within our window of tolerance, we are in a state of relative calm and alertness.
We can engage in daily activities, build and maintain relationships, and respond to stressors in a balanced manner.
In this state, we can engage in problem-solving, and maintain emotional regulation, processing and integrating both positive and negative emotions without becoming overwhelmed.
We are present and responsive, with our higher cognitive faculties online, and can think and feel and act proportionately according to the situation.
Obviously, this is where we want to be spending most of our time.
But what about the other regions on this map?
Above the window of tolerance is HYPER activation – where we go when we are triggered into fight or flight.
This is generally our first response to threat – indicated by the path of the red line in the diagram above.
In this response we actively and energetically try to eliminate the danger by either fighting or running away.
But there are often situations that we can’t fight our way out of or escape from – when we are outnumbered, overpowered, or cornered, for example.
In these situations, our other main survival instinct kicks in.
Here we drop below the window of tolerance, into HYPO activation – where we go when we are triggered into collapse, freeze, submit.
This is a very basic survival state, in which we are conserving our resources, playing dead, hoping that the danger either passes us by or at least finishes us off quickly.
In both of these beyond-tolerance zones, the instinctual self is largely running the show, and our relational self is diminished or entirely offline.
Returning within the window
Now, what’s so useful about this map is that it shows not only that we are either inside or outside the window of tolerance, but that we can go either up or down out of that window.
With this map in mind, we can easily learn to recognise the common signs of being in HYPER or HYPO activation.
This is important because knowing clearly which way we have gone out of the window tells us what we can do to consciously bring ourselves back inside.
And there are always ways back in.
The particular techniques used to return within the window of tolerance depends crucially on whether we are in HYPER or HYPO activation.
We’ll be introducing these techniques later in this series, when we discuss the practices of somatic resourcing.
But for now we just wanted to share this useful map with you, so you can start to orient yourself in the landscape of your nervous system and its various states of activation.
Next time you feel yourself getting triggered out of your window of tolerance, notice which way you’re going – up or down.
That simple practice will help you gain some familiarity with your nervous system’s automatic responses, and start to build mindfulness around your triggered states.
And for now, remember that whatever your nervous system is doing at any given moment, it is only ever trying to keep you safe in the best way it knows how.
Somatic empowerment is about learning to work with the body and its deep wisdom, not against it.
That’s why at Embodied Intimacy we say again and again: All of you is welcome here.
Read the next post in our Core Teachings series through here →
And if you’re super excited about learning to navigate your nervous system and work directly with your body’s own intelligence to regulate triggered states, our six-week online training, ReSource, is a deep-dive into the full theory and practice of somatic empowerment. You can find out more about ReSource here →
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