The Window Of Tolerance or The Window Capacity? Which Do You Prefer?

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The name for the window of tolerance has never quite sat right with me. I can’t take credit for this, but a few months ago, during a Polyvagal Teen® workshop, one of the participants shared with me a different term: the window of capacity. Immediately, a visualization popped into my mind—a squashed sandwich! 

I wish I could remember the name of the person who shared this insight with me, but unfortunately, it has slipped my ADHD memory. If you’re the one who mentioned it, please reach out to me so I can properly credit you! From our conversation and  inspired by the visualization of a squashed sandwich, I created a short story in video format. I hope you enjoy it & let me know what name you prefer! 

Exploring the Window of Tolerance V The Window of Capacity 

Instructions: Read the story below and answer the questions that follow.

“The Story of the Window of Tolerance and the Squashed Sandwich”

So, hey there! Today’s lesson at Noura Sloth Academy is a story about the window of tolerance and the squashed sandwich. For those who aren’t too sure about it, the window of tolerance is like a special zone that helps us feel just right. It was invented by a person called Dany Gal, who knows a lot about how our minds work. When we are in this zone, we can do our best at everything we do, like learning new things, having fun, and getting along with others.

It’s a happy place where we feel just the right amount of excited and focused, and it helps us do well in our everyday lives.

Now, although I think Dan is a really, really, really clever man, I prefer to use a different name instead of calling it the window of tolerance. I love to call it the window of capacity. So, why do I prefer to call it the window of capacity?

To me, the word “capacity” makes me think of something like a vessel or a cup or a jug, and that we all have a certain capacity for stress.

To me, the word “tolerance” makes it sound like we’re just putting up with life. You know, like we’ve got no choice. It’s something that has to be done.

While “capacity,” it kind of shows that we can do more and handle different situations. To me, capacity means we have the ability to grow, to learn, and deal with challenges instead of just tolerating them, just getting through them.

Even when we get full and spill over, we have the capacity to get back up and clean up the mess. Or sometimes we don’t have that capacity. And that’s okay too because sometimes things are just too much.

The best way I can explain our window capacity is if you think of a sandwich. You know, when you buy or make a fresh sandwich, the bread is bouncy, it’s springy. The filling is juicy, it’s fresh, it looks healthy and tasty. It looks like it’s full of life. Yum. Yum. You want to bite into it? Mm.

But then what happens? You put it in your bag for later. And you kind of forget about it, adding more stuff into your bag as you go about your day-to-day business. The list of important stuff keeps growing.

Your bag gets heavier and heavier, and your once fresh, juicy, springy, bouncy, full-of-life sandwich gets squashed to the bottom of your bag, pushed and prodded as the capacity in your bag gets less, as it gets fuller and fuller of all this stuff.

So, what does a squashed sandwich forgotten at the bottom of your bag have to do with anything, you might say? Well, just think of our capacity like that squashed sandwich at the bottom of your bag.

When we get stressed and we have lots of important things pushed and shoved on top of us, and we are prodded with stresses and worries, we become that soggy, sad, squashed sandwich, and our capacity to be nice and kind and patient reduces.

So, that’s the story of the window of tolerance, a.k.a., the capacity of tolerance, and the squashed sandwich. The end.

Comparing the window of tolerance to a squashed sandwich is an analogy that can help visualise its characteristics. Here’s how the two can be related:

  1. Shape and Size: Just like a sandwich is a physical object with a distinct shape and size, the window of tolerance can be thought of as a psychological and physiological space that has certain boundaries. It represents the range between being hyperaroused (overwhelmed, agitated) and hypoaroused (numb, dissociated).

  2. Compression: When you squash a sandwich, you compress its contents, making them fit within a smaller space. Similarly, external or internal stressors can “squash” an individual’s window of tolerance, causing it to shrink. This compression can occur due to overwhelming or traumatic experiences that push a person outside their optimal zone of functioning.

  3. Flexibility: A sandwich can be more or less resilient depending on its composition. Similarly, individuals have varying levels of flexibility within their window of tolerance. Some people may have a larger and more flexible window, allowing them to handle a wider range of stressors, while others may have a narrower window, making them more susceptible to being pushed beyond their capacity to cope.

  4. Rebound: If you release the pressure on a squashed sandwich, it can often regain its original shape. Similarly, individuals who experience stress or trauma that temporarily pushes them outside their window of tolerance can often rebound and return to their optimal state with appropriate support and self-regulation strategies.

  5. 5. The Filling: our sandwich can be made up to our unique likes and dislikes. Just like our unique selves we each have different likes or stressors which will impact our capacity of tolerance. 

It’s important to note that the analogy of a squashed sandwich is simply a metaphorical way I created to help explain the concept of the window of tolerance.

The actual psychological and physiological processes involved are complex and multifaceted, but this comparison can provide a visual representation to aid in comprehension. Your day-to-day business

Reflection Questions: 

  1. Describe what the window of capacity represents in terms of our emotional and physiological states.
  2. Why do you think the storyteller prefers to call it the “window of capacity” instead of the “window of tolerance”?
  3. Can you explain how the squashed sandwich in the story is similar to our capacity when we have lots of stress and worries?
  4. How does our capacity change when we have too many things to do or when we feel overwhelmed?
  5. What are some signs that show our capacity is getting smaller or squashed?
  6. What can we do to make our capacity bigger or restore it when it feels squashed?
  7. Can you think of a time when you felt your capacity was squashed or compressed? How did it make you feel?
  8. Why is it important to take care of our window of capacity and find ways to keep it healthy?
  9. How can being kind and patient with others be affected when our capacity is reduced?
  10. What can we learn from the story of the squashed sandwich about bouncing back and being resilient?


Feel free to discuss these questions with young people to help them understand the concept of the window of capacity and its relevance to their own experiences.


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About the author: Yasmin Shaheen-Zaffar

With a passion for improving the emotional wellbeing of young people, adults and parents, she is  the founder and creator of Polyvagal Teen®, she has developed an innovative approach to helping teens recognise and manage stress and anxiety through becoming “Polyvagal Aware”. In addition, Yasmin is also the founder of World Let’s Stop Shouting Day, which aims to promote peaceful communication and reduce conflict and aggression in our daily interactions. Neurosloth™ and The Hearts Whisper®

She also runs a small private practice providing counselling and neurofeedback  to young people and adults in North Yorkshire.

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