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“The body will reorganise when it feels safe”

Stephen Porges

When the autonomic nervous system has been shaped by trauma there is a disconnection between physical, emotional and behavioural responses. One of the aims of the therapeutic relationship is resourcing autonomic resilience. The autonomic nervous system learns from experience, and ongoing experiences can reshape the system. Creating a sense of safety can facilitate this growth and learning in the brain.

As we know the experience and impact of trauma can keep the brain and body perpetually in a fight, flight, freeze, or feign state or a combination of these states and replay the same responses to potential and perceived dangers. These adverse experiences disrupt the nervous system. Senses are heightened and reactions can be intensified meaning that resourcing strategies become less available. The focus therefore becomes regulating our responses, to support both ourselves and others to return to the optimal zone within the Window of Tolerance. In this zone other parts of the brain can operate more fully outside of the amygdala. The ability to regulate also allows us to re-engage in a felt sense of safety and shift from protect to repair. It also opens up the ability to build on relational capacity.

The Window of Tolerance is a model, attributed to Dan Siegel, which explains the way in which the brain and body react to perceived threat and ways we can regulate ourselves to return to the place in which we can access our reason, emotion and engage in clearer thinking. The two main dysregulated states identified in this model are the hyperaroused state in which we are overaroused and the hypoaroused state in which we are shut down to the arousal. The aim is to build our tolerance to the impacts of triggers through building autonomic resilience which can widen our Window of Tolerance.

More recently Cathy Malchiodi PhD revisited the Window of Tolerance, reframed and built on this concept, introducing the Circle of Capacity. In her latest article, Traumatic Stress and the Circle of Capacity she states:

“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 the mind and body..”

C.Malchiodi (2021) Traumatic Stress and the Circle of Capacity; Psychology Today

The premise is that the therapeutic relationship plays a role not only to build and expand tolerance to distress but to discover capabilities in trauma recovery. Considering both together rather than in a hierarchy represents the fluidity and overlap of these experiences. The use of the word capacity is also empowering and draws more fully on the language of trauma-informed principles.

Deb Dana’s work with the polyvagal system focusses on how we start to create safety by befriending the autonomic nervous system. This helps us understand and identify the aspects of each state and build curiosity and compassion towards the self. To create safety through regulation we must support our clients to first interpret their autonomic states to enable them to shape the system in a new way. The BASIC approach[1] (Befriend, Attend, Shape, Integrate and Connect) focuses on developing these skills of autonomic regulation so we can respond more flexibly, build resilience and create new pathways for safety and connection.

To learn more about creating safety and connection find out more about our Three Phased Approach three-day training intensive which explores some of these concepts.

Authored by Tamara O’Sullivan

[1] P36 Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection, Deb Dana

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National Counselling and Referral Service (Disability)1800 421 468