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Help Is Here

Updated: Jun 4

Hello,


Two letters ago I wrote “It'’s Not What You Think” and attempted to change the narrative around what students in the 21/22 school year are experiencing. Rather than saying that students are behind or that kids are not behaving like they should because they missed out on a normal school experience over the past two school years, I wanted to reframe the conversation to be one that is trauma-informed. Students in the 21/22 school year are similar to students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) and people who have lived through that often have experienced trauma. Framing the experience in this way creates empathy for the challenges whereas other ways that I have heard some speak about what they’re seeing from students sounds more like criticism.


In my last letter, “ACEs High,” I attempted to share that there is already research on how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been linked to negative short- and long-term outcomes on physical and emotional health. ACEs are traumatic experiences and the greater the number of ACEs someone has, the greater the likelihood for future negative outcomes. The original studies that identified ACEs were published in 1998. Of course, COVID-19 did not exist in 1998 to take into consideration regarding an adverse childhood experience, but that does not make COVID-19 any less of an adverse experience for some children—particularly those who might have already had an ACEs score of three or higher.

This week I want to share some ideas regarding how to respond to trauma in order to minimize it’s impact or shorten the actual experience. It’s not enough to be able to name an experience as traumatic—we need ideas on what to do when experiencing trauma.


Let me start by telling you first about someone in my life who is a “topper.” You know the type. No matter what you say, they have a story that will top yours. If you have a kid who did something great, their kid did something even better. If you know someone famous, they know someone more famous. You get the gist. When it comes to trauma, we need to remember that even though there are certainly people who are worse off, that does not minimize or trivialize the trauma that any one person experiences. It is not a contest. Just because someone may not have had a loved one who even had COVID, let alone died from COVID, does not mean that this person did not experience trauma due to the COVID pandemic. The inability to live life in a pre-COVID manner in and of itself can be traumatic. In other words, it is unhealthy to try to rate an experience or compare the impact of an experience. Spend energy on healing rather than comparing.


Secondly, I want to say that although I have my doctorate, I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or medical doctor of any kind. What I am is someone who has been trained in trauma-informed practices, an educator, a mom, and a fellow human being. I am also someone who is trying to share that regardless of whether or not you have found the past two years to be traumatic, you likely (a) interact with folks who do and/or (b) you will be impacted by trauma in the future. So the suggestions that I’m sharing here are from credible sources and can be referenced when you need them even if it’s not now.


With that out of the way, let’s start with thinking about what trauma is. Specifically, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines trauma as, an experience for children that is “an intense event that threatens or causes harm to his or her emotional and physical well-being.” More generally, Psychology Wiki explains…

For an event to have a traumatizing effect it is not necessary that physical damage occurs. Regardless of the source of the trauma, the experience has four common traits: it was unexpected, it was psychologically overwhelming, the person was unprepared or unable to cope with it, and there was nothing the person felt they could do to prevent or mitigate it. It is thus, not the event per se that determines whether an experience is traumatic, but the subjective experience of that person.

These four common traits certainly resonate with the pandemic for many people—students or the adults in their lives:

  1. It was unexpected

  2. It was psychologically overwhelming

  3. People were unprepared or unable to cope with it

  4. People could not prevent it and may not have been able to mitigate it


The American Psychological Association’s post, “How to Cope with Traumatic Stress” (that was written six months prior to the COVID shutdown starting in March of 2020), provides several suggestions for coping with traumatic stress, stating, “The good news is that there are very effective ways to cope with and treat the stressful effects of trauma. Psychologists and other researchers have found that these actions can help:”

  • Lean on your loved ones. Identify friends or family members for support. If you feel ready to discuss the traumatic event, you might talk to them about your experience and your feelings. You can also ask loved ones to help you with household tasks or other obligations to relieve some of your daily stress.

  • Face your feelings. It’s normal to want to avoid thinking about a traumatic event. But not leaving the house, sleeping all the time, isolating yourself from loved ones, and using substances to escape reminders are not healthy ways to cope over time. Though avoidance is normal, too much of it can prolong your stress and keep you from healing. Gradually, try to ease back into a normal routine. Support from loved ones or a mental health professional can help a lot as you get back in the groove.

  • Prioritize self-care. Do your best to eat nutritious meals, get regular physical activity, and get a good night’s sleep. And seek out other healthy coping strategies such as art, music, meditation, relaxation, and spending time in nature.

  • Be patient. Remember that it’s normal to have a strong reaction to a distressing event. Take things one day at a time as you recover. As the days pass, your symptoms should start to gradually improve.


In a similar vein, HelpGuide.org, “a small independent nonprofit that runs one of the world’s top 10 mental health websites,” shares

Just as it can often take time to clear the rubble and repair the damage following a disaster or traumatic event, it can also take time to recover your emotional equilibrium and rebuild your life. But there are specific things you can do to help yourself and your loved ones cope with the emotional aftermath of trauma—and find a way to move on with your life.
  • Remember there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel. People react in different ways to trauma, so don’t tell yourself (or anyone else) what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing.

  • Don’t ignore your feelings—it will only slow recovery. It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing your emotions, but they exist whether you’re paying attention to them or not. Even intense feelings will pass if you simply allow yourself to feel what you feel.

  • Avoid obsessively reliving the traumatic event. Repetitious thinking or viewing horrific images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system, making it harder to think clearly. Partake in activities that keep your mind occupied (read, watch a movie, cook, play with your kids), so you’re not dedicating all your energy and attention to the traumatic event.

  • Reestablish routine. There is comfort in the familiar. After a disaster, getting back—as much as possible—to your normal routine, will help you minimize traumatic stress, anxiety, and hopelessness. Even if your work or school routine is disrupted, you can structure your day with regular times for eating, sleeping, spending time with family, and relaxing.

  • Put major life decisions on hold. Making big life decisions about home, work, or family while traumatized will only increase the stress in your life. If possible, try to wait until life has settled down, you’ve regained your emotional balance, and you’re better able to think clearly.


So if these are ways to “cope” or “deal” with traumatic stress, I wonder how many children are able to do this on their own? My guess is not many. This is why it’s so important to properly name what is going on as trauma (again, refer to the post, “It’s Not What You Think”), why it’s so important to properly understand the impact of trauma (see the post “ACEs High”), and to create spaces where we can respond to trauma in healthy and productive ways. When kids don’t learn how to do that with adults, they are in danger of becoming unhealthy adults who are still struggling with unhealed hurts.


Below are seven tips from HelpGuide.org on how to cope with trauma. You can click here to read more about each tip on their website.

  1. Minimize media exposure.

  2. Accept your feelings.

  3. Challenge your sense of helplessness.

  4. Get moving.

  5. Reach out to others.

  6. Make stress reduction a priority.

  7. Eat and sleep well.

The above tips are helpful no matter what your age, but are ones that children may have difficulty initiating without adult encouragement, structure, or guidance. If you’re interested in additional suggestions for coping with trauma, click here to read the suggestions from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) including the following three tips for supporting a child with traumatic stress:

  • Let your child know that it is okay to feel upset when something bad or scary happens.

  • Encourage your child to express feelings and thoughts, without making judgments.

  • Return to daily routines.

As well, here is a link to a variety of resources on coping with COVID from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.


Finally, there are times when seeking help from a professional is the best choice. The CDC recommends that people “consider seeking professional help if your symptoms are severe enough during the first month to interfere a lot with your family, friends, and job. If you suspect that you or someone you know has PTSD talk with a health care provider or call your local mental health clinic.”


The long and the short of these past three letters is that if you don’t know what you’re looking at you can misdiagnose and dismiss behaviors triggered by trauma as something else. When you do that, you miss the opportunity to help be a part of the healing process and can, unintentionally, cause further harm.


~Heather


P.S. This week I'm catching the CDC's list of resources for help and information about traumatic stress. Please check it out and pass it on to those who might benefit from this information. Also, here is a link to a great resource on PTSD from NST Law Firm. Though this site is connected to PTSD after a car accident, there is great information regarding signs of PTSD, risk factors, etc.


Resources for Help and Information

  • American Red Cross focuses on meeting people’s immediate emergency needs after a disaster, such as shelter, food, and physical and mental health services. They also feed emergency workers, handle inquiries from concerned family members outside the disaster area, provide blood and blood products to disaster victims, and help those affected connect with other resources. http://www.redcross.org/services/disaster

  • Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) informs the public, healthcare professionals and legislators that anxiety disorders are real, serious and treatable. The ADAA promotes early diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders, and works to improve the lives of the people who suffer from them. http://www.adaa.org/index.cfm

  • National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD) is part of the department of Veterans Affairs. They work to improve the clinical care and social welfare of America's veterans through research, education, and training in the science, diagnosis, and treatment of PTSD and stress-related disorders. NCPTSD works with many different agencies and groups including veterans and their families, government policymakers, scientists and researchers, doctors and psychiatrists, journalists, and the public. This website is provided as an educational resource concerning PTSD and other consequences of traumatic stress. http://www.ncptsd.org/

  • National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) is part of the of the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health. NIMH is responsible for research on mental health and mental disorders, including research on the mental health consequences of and interventions after disasters and acts of mass violence. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/

  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Alliance is an alliance of professional and advocacy organizations that provide educational resources to individuals diagnosed with PTSD and their loved ones; those at risk for developing PTSD; and medical, healthcare and other professionals. http://www.ptsdalliance.org/ (877) 507-PTSD

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA) is the lead mental health services agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. SAMHSA help assess assessing mental health needs and mental health training for disaster workers. SAMHSA also help arrange training for mental health outreach workers, assesses the content of applications for federal crisis counseling grant funds, and addresses worker stress issues and needs.

P.P.S. Please remember to...


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