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Yoga and the Window of Tolerance

how yoga helps post traumatic growth trauma informed growth veteran yoga veteran yogi vetoga Oct 12, 2021
VETOGA Teachers in Standing Pose or Tadasana

We are best able to handle and cope with stressors when we are operating within our “window of tolerance”.

The “window of tolerance” (WOT) is a term first coined by the trauma researcher and practitioner Dr. Dan Siegel. The term is now commonly used to understand and explain our brain and body’s response to adverse events. When we are operating within our WOT we feel confident we can cope and deal with whatever situations we find ourselves in. We might feel some slight stress or pressure, but we can confidently handle the challenge. Trauma “shrinks” the window of tolerance for many people. Instead of having a large window in which to operate, the window becomes much smaller.

When an individual functions outside of the WOT they tend to experience either hyperarousal (hypervigilance, panic, anxiety, anger or agitation) or hypoarousal (numbness, shut down, poor self care, poor boundaries, depression). When the WOT shrinks, it does not take much to push someone outside of their comfort zone.

Being pushed above the WOT is where we experience hyperarousal. Hyperarousal is an overaction of the sympathetic nervous system, the nervous system responsible for our “fight or flight” response. Signs and symptoms of hyperarousal include anxiety, difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, anger, agitation, irritability, feeling very jumpy or on-edge (also known as an exaggerated startle response), being on “high alert” (what we call hypervigilance), chronic pain, panic, and nightmares. Hyperarousal can leave you feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

Functioning below the WOT is where hypoarousal is experienced. Hypoarousal is an overactivation of the parasympathetic nervous, the nervous system that controls rest and digestion. Having a normal parasympathetic response can help us to feel calm, safe and secure. However an overactivation of the parasympathetic nervous system can lead to depression, fatigue, numbness, lack of emotion, feeling cold and detached, and feeling isolated.

Yogis from 5,000 years ago already knew what we are just now starting to understand. Yoga helps to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, bringing them into harmony with one another. Yoga helps to widen the window of tolerance creating more space for us to effectively cope with stress and challenges. Yoga also helps us to stay within the window of tolerance instead of becoming irritable and agitated, or numb and detached. In the event we are triggered and outside of our WOT, yoga can help us to regulate our nervous system and operate within the boundaries of the WOT.

In case you needed another reason to develop a yoga practice, now you have it!


Dr. Ericka (Fitzgerald) Adkins

VETOGA Instructor and Founder of Stages of Change Psychotherapy, PLLC