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Trauma

Traumatic Stress and the Circle of Capacity

It’s time to release trauma survivors from the task of tolerance.

Key points

  • Window of tolerance is a common framework used to understand the impact of psychological trauma.
  • When it comes to traumatic stress, expanding the window of tolerance is one way to help individuals cope with trauma.
  • Recovery from trauma is not only about coping with distress. It is also about expanding the capacity for positive body/mind experiences.
© 2021 Cathy Malchiodi PhD
Circle of Capacity Model
Source: © 2021 Cathy Malchiodi PhD

The experience of psychological trauma is generally connected to the presence of distress. But in working with trauma survivors for over three decades, it is also the absence of enlivenment, play, curiosity, laughter, and self-compassion. In other words, repair of trauma is not just about learning to cope with distress. It is also about expanding the capacity for positive and pleasurable experiences in mind and body.

Window of Tolerance

A framework known as “window of tolerance” is ubiquitous in trauma literature and is most often attributed to psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. The term tolerance refers to the ability to endure continued subjection to something without an adverse reaction. According to this framework, traumatic stress decreases our window of what we are able to tolerate in two general ways. We may become more activated or hyperaroused and feeling overwhelmed, anxious, angry, or out of control emotionally. Or we may become numb and withdrawn, a form of hypoarousal that can include dissociation in response to distress.

Many individuals I see in my practice report both hyperarousal and hypoarousal when confronted by various situations and interpersonal relationships. Some report feeling both activated, yet frozen and “shutdown,” underscoring that we can experience both states simultaneously. Individuals with complex trauma histories, including multiple adverse childhood experiences, can be in both an immobilized (hypoaroused) state, but also feel extreme tension, emotional reactivity, racing thoughts, and hypervigilance characteristic of over-activation.

The window framework is most often depicted through a hierarchical graphic with hypoarousal as the lower zone and hyperactivation as the higher zone; the window of tolerance rests in the middle [see this example]. When it comes to traumatic stress, expanding the window of tolerance is one way of guiding clinical decision-making to address regulation and/or dissociative responses such as emotional numbness and immobilization.

Circle of Capacity

What if increasing capacity became the dominant objective rather than simply expanding the ability to tolerate distressful reactions? As an expressive and experiential practitioner, I see trauma repair and recovery through the exploration and discovery of capabilities in contrast to simply widening a window of tolerance. The self is not necessarily restored through increasing the ability to tolerate reactions, but through supporting tangible, sensory, and somatic experiences of efficacy, resourcing, and resilience.

This is a transformation felt in the body as the capacity for action, empowerment, mastery, and confidence when encountering distress and disruptive events. In other words, expanding tolerance may help an individual more effectively cope with distressing reactions. But in order to truly repair and recover, expanding capacity involves something beyond enduring and coping. It requires identifying and practicing experiences that begin to replace hyperactivation and/or hypoarousal in body and mind.

The graphic below is my first attempt at visualizing what I call a “circle of capacity.” The center represents our baseline experience, an area that shrinks and expands in response to a variety of impacts including traumatic stress. The outer circle includes two general areas of body/mind capacity. One is the capacity for self-regulation, co-regulation, and resilience that modulate hyperarousal and over-activation. The second is the capacity to inhabit body and mind through resourcing enlivenment, empowerment, self-compassion, joy, playfulness, and curiosity. I prefer to present these two areas within a circle rather than a hierarchy because these experiences are not separate, but often overlap. Both are essential in reducing the impact of traumatic stress and in supporting the restoration of the self as healthy and whole.

Transforming Tolerance Into Capacity

While I have applied Siegel’s framework to my clinical thinking, I have rarely explained it to individuals using the word “tolerate.” When it comes to the terror and atrocities of traumatic experiences, most practitioners would agree that we unfortunately know that trauma survivors have tolerated too much for far too long. In so many cases, they have coped with far too much—abuse, neglect, and assault. Many have endured multiple traumatic events since childhood, including disrupted attachment and repetitive incidents of interpersonal violence resulting in tenacious feelings of shame and guilt.

Siegel’s window of tolerance model will certainly continue to be a seminal framework in trauma repair and recovery. I am not advocating for a replacement of this framework as a way of understanding traumatic stress. But what I am proposing is a lane change when it comes to using language that underscores capacity, capability, and empowerment within the context of trauma-informed practice. Most practitioners are already doing this when applying the window of tolerance model. But is it time that survivors hear that recovery extends beyond simply expanding abilities to cope with distress. It is about instilling experiences of resilience, joy, and pleasure that ultimately replace suffering and pain with wholeness and well-being.

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