Tip #2
Our Brains on Trauma

In Tip 1, you learned about the importance of balancing your brain. Specifically, we talked about increasing the use of mindfulness to ensure that you are not in a fight or flight reactive state all day long. When you are teaching, there is a lot being thrown at you, intentional breathing can help settle down the sympathetic, reactive response.

This is particularly relevant when you are working with students who come with a history of trauma. A traumatic experience or traumatic stress can be defined as a single experience or repeated events or injuries that cause physical, emotional or psychic harm. A traumatic experience is the real or perceived threat to one’s own safety and security. This includes threats to our: Mental Safety & Security Emotional Safety & Security Physical Safety & Security

There is no one definition or defining line about what makes something traumatic or not. It is important to remember - what may be trauma to me may not be a trauma to you – but that does not make it any more or less of a trauma. Trauma is not just about what happened but also includes our perceptions of that experience and the degree to which we perceived substantial threat to our mental, emotional, or physical safety.

Understanding that many of your students come with a past or even current experience of trauma reminds us to try and interpret difficult behaviors such as acting out, over-dependence, or detachment, as natural reactions to trauma. We will talk in the weeks to come about how to express unconditional positive regard while activating the process of coping and adaptation in these young people.

With that said, as we seek to create a trauma-sensitive classroom and support our students with these complicated experiences, we too can be impacted by what we are hearing or seeing.

Secondary Trauma can be experienced when a teacher witnesses or is exposed to other people’s trauma or toxic stress. Secondary Trauma can lead to Compassion Fatigue which can cause you to feel worn down. Experiences such as feeling fatigued, apathetic, and a desire to be more isolated and less engaged can result from our exposure to the trauma of our students. You may notice changes in your mood and your thoughts. This can even lead to acting differently than you normally would.

When trauma, or the triggering of a traumatic reaction, or secondary trauma occurs, there is a physical change to our brain’s functioning. In each of these circumstances, our limbic system changes, the amygdala goes into overdrive, our brainstem triggers our fight or flight responses as it reacts to the amygdala’s transmission, and our prefrontal cortex shuts down. This process also increases our cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and creates neurotransmitter dysregulation – changing the way our neurons fire, and resulting in emotional dysregulation and heightened reactivity and hypervigilance to safety. This explanation might seem quite complicated, essentially, it means secondary trauma can cause us to overreact, particularly if we are experiencing ongoing stress.

In these moments, when we experience traumatic stress, react to a trigger of traumatic stress, or are experiencing the effects of secondary trauma or compassion fatigue - our brains are no longer acting as they normally would in times of feeling safe and secure. Our communication skills and problem solving skills will have decreased for the time being, as our brain tries to keep us safe, using fight, flight, or freeze.

So what do we do? As we talked about in Tip 1, our brains can adapt and we can seek to achieve a more balanced brain. But, we cannot do this unless we first notice our reactions, breathe, and then reflect on how to proceed.

This process is very important for you as teachers as these mindfulness techniques help you to manage your brain’s response to ongoing stress. But, there is a second important benefit. You are models to your students. When they watch you stop, breathe, think, and readjust your behavior during times of stress, they are learning to do the very same thing. Young people are often more likely to model what they saw us do rather than what we tell them to do. When you model adaptive response to ongoing stress, you are showing them how to do the same. It’s a beautiful thing and is at the heart of being a great teacher!

Take Action

Reflect this week on challenging behavior you have been dealing with from a student or group of students. What words would you use to describe how you are feeling about that situation? Now, think about the possibility that the behaviors are stemming from their own reactions to toxic stress or trauma. Does changing your interpretation change how you feel about this?

Talk to a fellow teacher this week about what a trauma-sensitive approach to teaching could look like. Thanks for keeping up on these tips, next week, we will talk about resilience, and will offer a sense of hope about what is possible despite the adversity many of us and our students face.