Origins of the Window of Tolerance + Rainbow Version
The ‘”Window of Tolerance” was first described and named by Dr. Dan Siegel in his 1999 book, The Developing Mind, which is now its third edition. In his work as a brain researcher and child psychiatrist, Dr. Siegal has explored and written extensively about brain development, emotional regulation, and attachment- and how research in these areas intersects with parenting, teaching, and child health. Unlike many academic researchers, Siegel has published his work in formats almost anyone can grasp: from heady academic articles through entry-level textooks, to easily-approachable mass-market paperbacks delivering cutting edge research in an easy-to-read parenting book. More resources are available through Dan Siegel’s website.
Rainbow Window of Tolerance Teaching Aid
The Window of Tolerance in Rainbow form was adapted by Lindsay Braman in 2019, out of a need for a better resource for explaining the window of tolerance to students and clients. The rainbow form of the window of tolerance enhances understanding by converting the concept of a window of tolerance into a simple visual – helping us better visualize, teach, and communicate how the window of tolerance is linked to emotional regulation.
The rainbow window of tolerance has three main components: the space in the middle where we are able to listen and learn (the rainbow part), an extreme on one end in which people respond by shutting down, dissociating, or going “flat” (the snowy storm clouds with a blank expression) and an extreme on the opposite end in which people respond by blowing up or, as Dr. Dan Siegel phrases it in his work, flipping our lid and getting very very upset (represented a storm clouds with an upset expression and tears)
Download the 3 Page Teaching Tool Below:
While technical graphics on the concept abound, I believe overly clinical or technical-looking materials can often make people feel bored, overwhelmed, worried, or pathologized. The rainbow of tolerance is an approachable, nonclinical visual aid for teaching the window of tolerance to all age groups. It works in therapy settings as well as classroom and home settings because it’s approachable, easy to understand, and cute!
Purchase the Window of Tolerance Resource on Printed Products
The window of Tolerance, Individual Tendencies, and Connection with Attachment Style
Even though most humans have had both experiences (getting extremely upset or shutting down) in response to overwhelming emotion, most of us tend to respond to highly distressing situations by consistently returning to one end of the spectrum or the other.
Therapists call these two extremes hypoarousal and hyperarousal. Hypoarousal occurs when we shut down. Our heart rate slows down, our thoughts may become foggy or unclear, and we may find ourselves with nothing to say and no strong feeling in particular. On the other extreme, hyperarousal is, just like it sounds, the opposite of this. Heart rates rise, tears come uncontrollably, and we may talk very fast or with a very strained voice. In a hyperaroused state, thoughts may race and we may find ourselves frantic to express our selves.
Some theorists propose that our attachment style (read more about attachment styles and access my visual interpretation of the spectrum here) may predict which extreme is a person’s default response to being pushed beyond their window of tolerance. This theory proposes that individuals who are avoidant in attachment style have learned, during childhood, to respond to conflict by shutting down and checking out, because in their family of origin, they learned this was was the most effective way to preserve connection with a caregiver. On the other end of the spectrum, individuals who were better able to access care in childhood by expressing big emotions are more likely to default to a hyper-aroused state when interpersonal conflict pushes them to their window of tolerance.
Stress shrinks our Window of Tolerance
The window of tolerance under stress doodle does a good job of illustrating how, when we are under a lot of stress, our window of tolerance shrinks. A healthy window of tolerance that might have been wide open with lots of room for self-regulation before we were under stress becomes compressed, and we may find ourselves losing our temper or bursting into tears more often. If this stress is short term, it’s likely that the window of tolerance for an individual will return to normal once the stressor has passed, however, in the case of chronic stress or trauma, mental health treatment or additional resources may be needed to develop a wider window of tolerance. Keep reading to learn how.
Download the Window of Tolerance Under Stress Printable
Purchase the Window of Tolerance Under Stress Poster
Get a copy of the Window of Tolerance Under Stress Coloring Page Printable
Ways to Increase Our Window of Tolerance
A question people often have in response to these graphics is: how can we grow our window of tolerance?
The good news is that windows of tolerance aren’t set for life. Just like they can shrink during times of stress, they can expand in capacity and flexibility in response to the changes that happen in our brain through good therapy, stable attachments in relationships, mindfulness, yoga, time spent outdoors and more.
And- it isabsolutely possible to grow your window of tolerance no matter how old you are! For all individuals, both adults, and kids, our window of tolerance broadens when we are experiencing good care, safe intimate relationships, and mindful connection to the natural world around us and within us. In other words:
- Experiencing the feeling of being close, connected, and securely attached to someone that we trust
- a parent or caregiver
- romantic partner
- or anyone that our brain knows we can trust and lean on
- Experiencing connection and awareness of our own emotions and embodied experience.
- Caring for and receiving unconditional acceptance from a pet.
- Walking, hiking, or other outdoor activities that focus on “taking in our surroundings” rather than achieving fitness goals.
- Yoga, mindfulness, and other activities that increase awareness of ourselves and our surroundings.
- Experiencing the feeling of being close, connected, and securely attached to someone that we trust
All of these activities- and so many not listed here- grow connections in our brain that help us feel safe and able to weather triggering and uncomfortable experiences.
Window of tolerance and Trauma
Trauma shrinks our window of tolerance. When our brains have experienced trauma, and haven’t received the care we need to integrate that trauma in a healthy way, people often experience shrinkage of their window of tolerance. After trauma, brains devote more resources to being on high alert and constantly scanning surroundings for threats of more trauma. As brains adapt to maintaining this state of hypervigilance, the amygdala (the part of our brain that searches for threats) physically enlarges as resources are redirected from the hippocampus (where we make complex decision-making and where the ability to self regulate is mostly located). As brains stay in this constant high threat, high-stress environment, their window of tolerance changes in the same way as shown in the graphic about brains under stress.
Broadening a Window of Tolerance for Trauma Survivors
For trauma survivors, growing a broader window of tolerance works the same way as that described above. Additionally, Australia’s Blue Knot Foundation – National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma recommends the following tool:
The Window of Tolerance & Addiction Treatment
In the past when I have worked with individuals in recovery from substance abuse disorder, the Window of Tolerance Visual has helped many individuals better understand their triggers to use. For a brain that is addicted to a substance or behavior, many times the substance (or behavior) is used as a way to cope when emotions become overwhelming. Over time and repeated escape to the drug or behavior, the window of tolerance shrinks and even slight triggers can provoke the addicted brain to use.
For example, for an alcohol-addicted-brain, the window tolerance in rainbow form might look more like the rainbow representing the range of experiences that the individual can experience without experiencing an overwhelming urge to consume alcohol, but the storm clouds at either end might represent when they find themselves beyond their ability to cope and feel that they have no choice but to use alcohol to as an external way to regulate themselves back into what feels like their window of tolerance.
Window tolerance Worksheets for Kids
My Feelings Forecast worksheet is a 3-page resource designed to help parents, teachers, and counselors help kids develop emotional regulation skills and a wider Window of Tolerance. Download below:
All learning is developmental, and while we can give kids the tools to develop a Window of Tolerance, like emotional maturity, it’s a capacity that develops slowly over time and with a lot of care from parents, caregivers, and teachers. While developing the skills for emotional regulation and staying within our window of tolerance during difficult times is something kids learn by feel rather than cognition, teaching kids about this theory can help kids make connections.
Window of Tolerance Worksheet For Behaviorally Struggling Kids:
Often, kids are as distressed by their “bad behavior” as adults are- they don’t really understand why they do what they do, or why they react like they do when they are overwhelmed. Helping kids learn how to notice when they are getting emotional overwhelmed and how to self-soothe or ask for help getting calmed down (instead of acting out) is accomplished through developing emotionally but also through learning and experimenting. Using the rainbow form of the window of tolerance to help kids understand what’s happening when they “blow up” can help kids understand that they aren’t “bad kids” when they misbehave and that what happens to them is normal for brains that are very very overwhelmed. By helping kids understand what’s happening, they can begin to understand that they may need to use resources or ask for care when they feel themselves getting upset.