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Tolerance window and emotional regulation strategies

All mental disorders or personality disorders have a common component: the appearance to a greater or lesser extent of emotional dysregulation. Either as an origin, maintenance or consequence of said disorder.

Emotional dysregulation (or dysregulation) is an emotional response that does not fall within the conventionally accepted ranges for emotional responses. In other words: emotion takes over the person.

The maximum level of arousal that a person can withstand is determined by the margins of what is called the tolerance window. If we stay within its limits we can face situations, learn and have a feeling of well-being and security. Crossing the thresholds of the window leads us to an "emotional kidnapping" where emotions take control of our actions.

In this article we are going to explain what the tolerance window is, what happens when we cross its limits, what Factors influence how wide these margins are and how we can widen this zone to make ourselves more resilient.

  • Related article: "Emotional psychology: main theories of emotion"
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The Tolerance Window

This concept was created by Dr. Dan Siegel with the aim of describing the "optimal arousal zone" of people. Within this zone, we are skilled at managing emotions even when we are stressed, sad, or angry..

If we find ourselves within this zone, it does not matter what circumstances we find ourselves in because we will be able to feel and think at the same time.

There are different factors that can act as triggers of emotional dysregulation, such as situations of prolonged stress, conflicts, breakups, rejections, loss of important people, layoffs and a long and so on.

A trigger increases the likelihood that a person will become emotionally dysregulated, but it is not a direct cause, since our way of dealing with situations that arise in life does not have so much to do with the situation itself, but with the capacity we have to deal with this situation in the best possible way.

There are people who have remained within the window of tolerance even incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps (I recommend the book "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl).

Emotional management strategies
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What happens when we cross the thresholds of the tolerance window?

There are two ways to cross the threshold of the tolerance window: above or below. When a person experiences too much activation we speak of hyperarousal and when they do not experience enough it is called hypoarousal.


Crossing the threshold of the tolerance window at the top our nervous system is very excited. In this case it is extremely difficult to think and our actions are reactive or impulsive.

When a person stays in the hyperarousal zone, they experience:

  • Increased sensations.
  • emotional reactivity.
  • hypervigilance
  • intrusive images.
  • Alteration of the logical process of thoughts.

It is here where fight or flight mechanisms appear in a threatening situation.

  • Related article: "Types of stress and their triggers"


Crossing the threshold of the tolerance window at the bottom our nervous system is very little activated. It is for example when we are paralyzed by bad news, when we have memory lapses after a negative event, we panic and cannot move or act.

It usually appears as a defense mechanism in certain situations. The person experiences:

  • absence of sensations
  • Numbing of emotions
  • Decreased ability to process cognitively
  • Reduced physical movements

This phenomenon appears very clearly in depressive disorders, and is also very characteristic in traumatic situations. when the person is blocked and can not react.

  • You may be interested: "Types of depression: their symptoms, causes and characteristics"

What factors influence the width of the margins of the Tolerance Window?

The narrower the margins of the tolerance window, the more likely we are to cross them.

It has been shown through numerous studies on trauma that all the negative experiences that we go through throughout our lives and that we do not know how to manage they create scars that narrow the window of tolerance.

Some of the factors that influence the width of our tolerance zone are the following.

1. Unmanaged traumatic experiences

When we talk about traumatic experiences, they are not only extreme events such as a robbery, accident, rape, natural disaster or terrorist attack. A traumatic experience is the one that causes us suffering.

The accumulation of unmanaged traumatic experiences throughout our lives narrows the window of tolerance. I place special emphasis on the term "unmanaged", since a person who has suffered multiple traumatic experiences, but has managed to face them, becomes a more resilient person.

  • Related article: "What is trauma and how does it influence our lives?"

2. Type of attachment in childhood

There is currently a very powerful line of research on how the type of education and the bond we had with our parents or attachment figures in childhood It determines not only our way of facing the world, but also the base activation level of our nervous system, fundamentally the limbic one (the one that processes emotions).

3. Cognitive distortions or thinking errors

They are automatic thoughts that form our internal dialogue. They are errors because they interpret reality in a subjective way, attending only to part of the information.

4. limiting beliefs

They are firm unconscious and automatic ideas that direct our lives.. They are deeper than errors of thought and originate in childhood (although some can develop throughout life after shocking events)

Both thinking errors and limiting beliefs are two ways of interpreting reality. When we interpret it in a negative, hostile, dangerous way and we value that we do not have the capacity to face it, our window of tolerance will be very narrow.

How can we widen the margins of the Tolerance Window?

The margins of the tolerance window are flexible and we can widen them to become more people. resilient.

1. Root or stay in the present

Through techniques such as Mindfulness, we exercise attention and the ability to “return” to the present moment. when we realize that our thoughts have taken us to the future or the past and are causing us suffering.

  • You may be interested: "What is Mindfulness? The 7 answers to your questions

2. Create internal and imaginary places of safety

It is advisable think of a place (or create it mentally) that generates a feeling of well-being and security. Every time you feel yourself crossing the threshold of the tolerance window you can go back to that safe place to calm down.

3. relaxation or breathing

Any relaxation or breathing technique will help you increase your tolerance level.

As a very powerful relaxation technique I propose Jacobson's progressive relaxation which is based on the tension and distension of different muscle groups.

As a breathing technique I recommend the square breath, since it is very easy to remember and to apply in highly emotional moments:

  • Inhale 4 seconds.
  • Hold the air for 4 seconds.
  • Exhale 4 seconds.
  • Hold the air for 4 seconds.
  • And start over. Perform at least 3 repetitions.

4. do psychological therapy

Doing therapy is a fundamental strategy because it is not only important to learn tools that can help regulate your emotions and cope more adaptively with stressful situations, but also to know why you experience those emotions, what is underneath, and change from the root.

Thus, therapy helps you both in that self-knowledge and in learning the right tools.

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