Our entire community felt the impact of the shooting at our church a few years ago in one way or another. Finding words to communicate the hurt and confusion was vital as we tried to make sense of all we were experiencing post-trauma. Capacity became the code word to let each other know we were simply at our emotional, conversational, and functional limit.
Over the last few days, feeling frustrated with my lack of energy, inability to focus, and level of irritability, I was reminded of that time. My blog post, Heart Attack: Harder to Recognize Than You Think, mentioned our realization that my husband’s heart attack was both a physical and emotional trauma. Just hours later I had familiar post-traumatic feelings of overwhelm, I had reached capacity.
Understanding the reality of our capacity is just one aspect of the post-trauma journey. You might wonder why it is necessary to put words to the experience, to identify the link between emotions and the event. I believe it is significant because it is the moment our mind and our heart get on the same page-the knowing and the feeling begin to match-up.
Capacity: Defining It, Not Defined By It
Capacity is feeling as though the receptors in your brain are maxed-out, causing even simple processing to slow. Basic decision-making is difficult and exhausting. The multitasking you once did without a second thought, the conversations you easily followed, the words you quickly sequenced into complete sentences-gone. Physically, it feels like you are trudging through waist-deep water. The emotional veil lifts exposing the anger, insecurity, sorrow, guilt, irritation and grief you were once able to manage.
Imagine the water level in a bottle representing your physical, emotional, and mental capacity, all combined in a single vessel. The level rises and falls based on what is going on in life and what it takes to deal with it. Normal could be described as a “water level” fluctuating somewhere between half and two-thirds in the bottle. Sure, sometimes you can get so busy you forget details or end up late because of a tight schedule, but there is some degree of margin to manage the load. According to Richard A. Swenson M.D., margin is the space between our load and our limits.
Physical or emotional trauma like abuse, assault, debilitating illness, auto accidents, divorce, death of a loved one, or a near-death experience can easily raise the “water level” by half, in an instant. If your normal keeps you running close to capacity, a trauma to you or someone to love can blow the cap right off the bottle. There is no longer any margin, no longer any room for even the smallest of drops.
The bottle doesn’t get bigger or expand. Post-trauma, intensity of any kind-movie scenes, loud noises, strained conversation, intense personalities, large crowds-erodes our margin. The energy it takes to process faces, noise level, and hyper-vigilance, can quickly overwhelm. The excess, which spills out of the bottle, generally splashes on those around us. Our human capacity to navigate the emotional, mental, and physical demands of processing the event or circumstances leaves little or no room for anything else.
Signs of being at capacity:
- Everyday things feel like “one more thing”-a ringing phone, barking dog, people standing too close, long lines, crying babies, honking horns, unexpected loud noises, etc.
- You feel like there is a constant lump in your throat, you could cry at any moment.
- Reading more than a short paragraph is difficult to process, reading sentences repeatedly.
- Shopping feels tedious, there are too many items to focus on and too many decisions to make.
- Conversations are difficult to follow, forgetting much of what was said.
- At work, it takes enormous effort to do the bare minimum, making uncharacteristic mistakes.
- Sleep doesn’t seem to help. You are sleeping, but you don’t feel refreshed when waking.
- Being in crowded places feels overwhelming.
- Social engagements for you or your children feel stressful rather than enjoyable.
- You lose patience more quickly, feel less in-control.
- Feelings of isolation, you perceive life around you continues as “normal” for others, as though you are outside or set-apart.
- Change, even good change, is hard to assimilate.
What to do about it:
- Recognize it for what it is. You are not experiencing capacity or overwhelm because you are a lesser human being. God is infinite; we are finite, given limits from the beginning of creation.
- Give yourself permission to do less, for a time.
- Plan activities you enjoy, those that reduce your “water level” and increase margin.
- Learn to listen to your body. Rest, even if you have to let some things go, even good things.
- Write about the experience, how you feel about it. This exercise provides feedback in the future. Journaling gives witness to the milestones and personal growth we experience when actively processing through difficult circumstances.
- Talk about what you are feeling with a trusted friend or counselor. Saying something out loud helps the heart and mind get in sync.
- Ask a friend or relative to accompany you at important appointments; ask co-workers to sit-in on important meetings. Another person can help process information and hold you accountable if necessary.
- Tell those who are a regular part of your life what you are experiencing so they can understand you may need time and space from the usual patterns of life for a season.
- Pray and ask for prayer. Writing-out prayers or writing the Psalms in your own words brings tremendous comfort and healing. God is our greatest counselor and help in times of trouble. “It is human surrender that releases the divine power.” ~John MacBeath
- Get some practical help. Trying to handle everything by yourself will just propagate more of the overload you already feel.