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Window of Tolerance & Hyper/Hypo-arousal

The window of tolerance is a concept originally developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, MD to describe the optimal zone of “arousal” for a person to function in everyday life. When a person is operating within this zone or window, they can effectively manage and cope with their emotions.

For people who have experienced trauma, it is often difficult to regulate a threat response and the zone of arousal where they can function effectively becomes quite narrow.

When a person has a maladaptive threat response running, it can be especially difficult for them to stay grounded in the present because the past is more vivid and intrusive. Someone constantly living in their past adverse childhood memories is primed to detect threat — and "triggered" into a state of defense. That means they generally have a very narrow window of tolerance.

The stress of a traumatic memory or trigger may cause them to be pushed out of their window of tolerance. Even seemingly minor stressors can cause a client to dissociate, get angry, or feel anxious – leading to states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal.


What is Hyperarousal?

Hyperarousal is also known as the “fight, flight, or freeze response” and is a heightened state of activation/energy. It is when a client’s nervous system suddenly kicks into high alert, even when danger might not be present. A client may not feel in control over their actions when they enter this state. It can often be triggered by perceived threat, traumatic memories, or specific emotions. It is also one of the primary symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Hyperarousal Symptoms:

  • Angry outbursts

  • Fear

  • Anxiety

  • Emotional overwhelm

  • Panic

  • Hypervigilance

  • Tight muscles

  • “Deer in the headlights” freeze

Often, clients who experience hyperarousal are stuck “on” which can make it difficult to form healthy sleeping habits, manage emotions, and concentrate effectively. Physically, their body may seem tense and on the brink of explosion, which can eventually result in angry outbursts and hostility.

What is Hypoarousal?

Hypoarousal is also known as the “shutdown” or “collapse” response. Like hyperarousal, it can often be triggered by feeling threatened, recounting traumatic memories, or feeling emotions associated with past trauma. Even a perceived threat can be enough to send a client into shutdown or even dissociation.

Hypoarousal Symptoms:

  • Depression

  • Numbness

  • Emptiness

  • Flaccid body

  • Blank stare

  • Inability to speak

  • Dissociation

Hypoarousal is when a client has too little arousal as the result of an overloaded parasympathetic nervous system. It can impact a client’s sleep and eating habits, leaving them feeling emotionally numb, socially withdrawn, and finding it difficult to express themselves.


Luckily there are ways to we can become regulated from either hypo or hyper-arousal. This can include techniques using the Polyvagal theory, trauma reprocessing with EMDR or ART or through Somatic therapies. We know now that these threat responses can be changed and that the brain is changeable. Find a Therapist near you who specializes in a brain changing method or message me for more info on how to become a more regulated human today.


NICABM 2022

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