The Two Sides of Trauma

The Two Sides of Trauma
by Dr. Will Henson

One of the most important revelations for educators who adopt a trauma-informed lens is understanding how a student’s dysregulated behavior might be part of “fight or flight” response. For example, a student being confronted by an adult might perceive danger (even where there is none) based on their history. They may then find their heart racing and overall physiology gearing up to meet this imaginary threat. This is what we call “hyperarousal“.

When I give trainings on trauma I often carry with me a rubber tarantula which I suddenly place on an unsuspecting educator’s table. I do this to show people that “fight or flight” responses aren’t logical or rational. They involve a whole-body response. People can still feel their body tingling and their arousal system gearing up, even in response to a harmless piece of rubber. This helps people understand that even though a kid may actually be safe, they can feel unsafe – and respond accordingly. Knowing this helps us regulate our own responses to help prioritize and create a sense of safety.

However, there is another side to trauma that a lot of the current literature doesn’t talk about –

Humans who have been repeatedly traumatized spend a lot of time a state of “under-arousal” – what we might think of as withdrawn, numb or dissociated.

Research shows that people who have experienced trauma spend time oscillating between being over-arousal and under-arousal. They spend very little of this time in the healthy range where they are able to experience and tolerate a range of emotions (i.e. the daily ups and downs we all experience). The take away: One of the goals of building resilience in students is not just helping them calm down, but to tolerate emotions in a healthy range of arousal.

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