2.4 The Window of Tolerance as a Guidance to Building Resilience

2.4 The Window of Tolerance as a Guidance to Building Resilience

The Window of Tolerance Explained

People are best able to deal with stressful situations and their triggers when they are within their ability to manage their resulting emotions. This is where the concept of “Window of Tolerance” comes in. Corrigan, Fisher and Nutt (2011) describe it as the optimal zone of arousal for a given person to function in everyday life, where emotions can be experienced as tolerable, and information can be integrated.

Beyond the window of tolerance lie the states of “Hyperarousal” and “Hypoarousal”. The first describes a heightened state of activation and energy, that might elicit the aforementioned fight, flight or freeze response, where a person might lose control of their actions. The second is a shutdown or collapse response where a person might feel numbness, emptiness, having a black stare or an inability to speak and express themselves.

The authors outline behaviours that people use to try and get back within their window of tolerance but end up taking them to the opposite end of the spectrum. For example, following a feeling of terror after a trauma flashback, jumping to a hyperarousal state, one might try to calm down, eating for comfort, but then this might lead to feelings of shame for overeating, leading to a hypoarousal state. At last, trying to compensate for this, one might try alcohol intoxication to increase their arousal, but instead of landing in the window of tolerance, it ends up in the harmful hyperarousal state, during withdrawal, potentially leading back to trauma flashback, continuing the cycle.

To avoid these states of dysregulation and the actions associated with them, as the main mode of activity, one must try to stay within the Window of Tolerance. How can you help someone do that?

Reaching out


Building Resilience: Expanding your Calm/Optimal Zone

Hobfoll (2007) identified 5 principles of the intervention in trauma situations, after gathering a panel of world-renowned experts. These principles guide the most sensitive areas in need of support, promoting the feeling of Safety, Calmness, the sensation of Self-efficacy and community efficacy, the Connection to a social support network and Hope.

Adding to this, Brymer et al. (2006) sets some principles on how to prepare when helping someone who is experiencing trauma, how to establish a relationship, promote stability, safety, and comfort. How to gather information, refer the person for other services and help with coping and social support.

Firstly, according to Brymer et al. (2006) it is important to be mindful of how you step into the situation, understand the circumstances you’re dealing with so you can begin to help with the distress signals, such as agitation, isolation, apathy, excessive worrying, and others. It is important to adjust the conversation to the needs and concerns of the target-group and focus on problem solving strategies, not letting the conversation steer into a sum of complaints.

Trauma can elicit strong reactions in people. So, maintaining a calm presence can help build trust and show a hopeful stance on the situation, a state which might be taken as an example and followed. Be mindful of peoples’ cultural, ethnic, religious, or linguistic contexts and cultures, as well as people belonging to populations at risk, such as the socially disadvantaged, people who have suffered significant losses. These might be a hint to how the person you’re confronted with expresses emotions and attitudes, as well as a suggestion on traditions, rituals, familiar structure that can be promoted and which might benefit the person you’re trying to help.

Brymer et al. (2006) emphasises the importance of:

  • Observing first, avoiding being intrusive, asking what people need and how you can help.
  • Be prepared for the person to avoid you, or, conversely, not to let you go.
  • Focus on listening to the needs of the people you’re helping when they speak.
  • When speaking, do it calmly, patiently and be sensitive. Avoid slang or jargon words.
  • Positively reinforce the person’s attempts to remain safe and deal with his or her situation.

Knowing this, and joining the contributions of both authors’ models, we draw guidelines on how to promote specific key conditions, when faced with a person impacted by traumatic experiences.

To promote Hope, Safety and Calmness, it is important to:

  • Normalise stress reactions
  • Help people in identifying, amplifying, and concentrating in developing their strengths
  • Encourage coping behaviours (deep breathing, muscle relaxation, grounding techniques)
  • Help deal with self-deprecating thoughts

To promote Self-efficacy:

  • Give people resources
  • Involve them in the decision-making process to their recovery
  • Promote community activities (gatherings, religious activities)
  • Encourage people’s belief in their abilities
  • Teach how to solve problems and set achievable goals
  • Help increase the person’s notion of control over their problems

To promote the connection to a social support network:

  • Identify those without any support.
  • Teach them how to look for help
  • Help with disagreements within members of the family
  • Provide formal support on useful resources

Throughout this article, in our effort to make clear what trauma is and how to deal with it, we have been revolving around two important major takeaways:

  • Traumatic experiences do not necessarily lead to trauma.
  • Our brains show plasticity, present circumstances can be changed, trauma is not forever.

With this in mind, when helping people who have been through traumatic experiences, you can help them deconstruct long held beliefs and thoughts about who they are, what their experiences meant, to help them build resilience. Some examples are as follows:

  • What have you been trying to do, to help you out of your situation?
  • What improvements have you been seeing lately?


Reflective questions for the reader:

  1. Why is it important to help soon after a traumatic event?
  2. Name 2 situations when it might be better to redirect someone to a professional therapist.
  3. How can you help with someone’s traumatic experience in improving their success in the labour market?