Within the Window

Our nervous system’s window of tolerance – the intensity of feeling we can experience while still maintaining connection with another – is continually expanding and contracting.  When we are physically alone, the continually fluctuating breadth of our window depends on the strength of the regulatory system built in relationship with others as well as the supportive internal presence of those with whom we have close connections.  It varies from moment to moment depending on how rested and healthy we are, what might be activated in our own system, and what we are experience in relationship with the outer world.  It is different, however, when we are with a receptive, responsive other.  Then, our joined windows of tolerance can allow us to plumb depths and heights of feeling that would dysregulate us if we were on our own.  My emerging fear and pain can be embraced by the wide window of your receptive ventral presence, and in this space, healing potentially unfolds…. Because of the stability of the outer person’s system, the inner person can explore formerly dysregulating experiences of sympathetic arousal and dorsal withdrawal without losing connection…  Since our systems already have a preference for ventral vagal, the inner person can be drawn toward that state of the holding person, so experiences of pain and fear can be witnessed and transformed in the space between as the social engagement systems regulate each other (Badenoch, 2018, pp. 87-89).

Within the bounds of the therapeutic window lies a Self-specific process of physiological and psychological integrative flow that, held in benevolence by an Other, interprets and brings coherence and effective response to the affective messages of incoming stimuli (Siegel, 2012).  This is a regulated communicative movement between the left (logical, literal, and familiar detail differentiation) and the right (viscerally mediated contextual connotation) prefrontal cortex, as they simultaneously connect with the lower limbic areas bringing together a sense of past, present, and future meaning (Badenoch, 2018; Dahlitz, 2016; Peyton, 2020); this is a dance performed upon the Self to Other floor of co-regulation, a space whereby the bidirectional pathways that modulate autonomous reaction to neuroceptive (interoceptive, proprioceptive, and exteroceptive) incongruences of threat and safety are slowed and understood with coherence (Badenoch, 2018; Porges, 2001).  This is a waltz of energy and information processing that has not been experienced by the Self before and thus a scaffolding that allows the Self to move into previously incoherent levels of sensation, emotion, and cognition (Siegel, 2012; Tayber & Tayber, 2017).

Physiologically (Body Affect), psychologically (Mind Effect), and relationally (Sharing) this Self-specific waltz, or therapeutic window of tolerance, can be conceptualised through an appreciation of the mammalian social engagement system and autonomic hierarchical strategies of survival: the organisation of three sequential subsystems linked to innate reaction or response – the ventral vagal complex, the sympathetic nervous system, and the dorsal vagal complex (see Figure 1 Schlote, 2019; Porges, 2001), as they relate to moment-to-moment observable motivations of coping (observable behavioural strategies of survival such as approach or avoid) and the Self’s ability to orientate and re-orientate towards states of safety and social engagement (Dahlitz, 2013; Porges, 2001).  When utilising this method of conceptualisation and affect regulation the Other can become attuned to and allow manageable levels of behavioural propensities that indicate disparities in regulation (i.e. hypo- or hyper- physical, emotional, or cognitive activities); correspondingly in turn, the Other can receptively and responsively action appropriate modulation that brings a return to Self-specific safety – to “monitor and modify” the Self back into a therapeutic window that creates integrative flow (Badenoch, 2018; Porges, 2001; Siegel, 2012; Somatic Psychotherapy Today, 2018). 

When understood in its entirety this Self-specific process of physiological and psychological integrative flow that is held within the bounds of the therapeutic window is a compassionate process that does not intend nor induce harm.  Rather, this is a process of beneficent healing that establishes co-regulated stability and an expansive moulding of the Self’s innate capacity to continually control incongruence; what were once potentially maleficent rapid autonomous reactions are now slowed responses whereby interoceptive, proprioceptive, and exteroceptive sensations are recognised and received, perceived as tolerable, and interpreted not as threatening but rather as adaptive levels of distress that can be cognitively processed with contextual coherence and effective response.  By being opened to experiences of expansion through controllable incongruence, the Self learns to physically and mentally “monitor and modify” (Siegel, 2012, p. 4-2) what once seemed harmful and in need of avoidance – nothing more or less displays a most benevolent act one can facilitate.

Figure 1


Badenoch, B. (2018). The heart of trauma: Healing the embodied brain in the context of relationships. W. W. Norton & Company.

Dahlitz, M. (2013). Orientation and control. The Science of Psychotherapy. https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/orientation-and-control/

Dahlitz, M. (2016). Guide to the brain Part 6. The Science of Psychotherapy. https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/guide-to-the-brain-part-6/

Peyton, S. (2020). Blame and its Antidotes [Video]. Empathy Brain. https://members.empathybrain.com/courses/blame-and-its-antidotes-july-14-2020/

Porges, S. W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology42(2), 123-146. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0167-8760(01)00162-3

Schlote, S. (2019). The Polyvagal theory and horses: An introduction — EQUUSOMA. EQUUSOMA. https://equusoma.com/the-polyvagal-theory-and-horses/

Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to Mindsight and neural integration. W. W. Norton & Company.

Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology: An integrative handbook of the mind (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company.

Somatic Psychotherapy Today. (2018). Window of tolerance, Polyvagal theory & relational mindfulnesshttps://somaticpsychotherapytoday.com/window-of-tolerance-polyvagal-theory-relational-mindfulness/

Teyber, E., & Teyber, F. (2017). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative model (7th ed.). Cengage Learning