All mental illness works as a compensation to deal with trauma. The way we adapt to stressful situations becomes the illness.” -Gabor Mate, PhD

Vulnerable Populations: Why Childhood Trauma Matters

When you hear the word trauma or traumatic-stress disorder what is the first thing you think of?

For most, the immediate association is of soldiers and veterans. This is not without good reason – it is currently estimated that the suicide rate among veterans is 50% higher than the civilian population in the United States.

What you may not immediately think of, however, is children in our public-school system. The majority of people suffering from chronic-stress and traumatic-stress disorders are actually women and children. We need only look as far as the prolific ACE’s study to see evidence of the far-reaching impact of childhood trauma. I have found this to be true in my own practice as well; in just one year working as a school counselor at a small, well-respected public school I conducted 27 suicide-risk assessments on students 13 and younger.

Despite the prevalence of trauma, it is a term (along with mindfulness) that is frequently misused or misunderstood in both therapeutic and educational sectors. A deeper exploration of these terms reveals why trauma is one of the most costly and deadly public health concerns our society is facing; and how mindfulness is one of the most viable solutions we have.

A Functional Definition of Trauma

First, let’s establish a working definition of trauma. A quick google search will yield definitions like “a deeply disturbing event or experience;”  or “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”  These definitions leave quite a bit wanting. For starters, what one person may consider “deeply disturbing” may just be another day on the job for another (although most adults vastly underestimate the impact that even mildly stressful events can have on their nervous system). Thus, a more complete definition of trauma would require room for subjectivity & relativity. These definitions also fail to account for more subtle and insidious forms of trauma such as neglect, abandonment, and vicarious trauma.

A more functional definition of trauma is:

Trauma is an event, or series of events, that overwhelms the central nervous system. Trauma occurs when one’s ability to defend, protect, or say no is overwhelmed.

Even more simply:

trauma is what occurs when your solution (active response to threat) does not work. 

The Role of Choice

Trauma is actually a normal response to an abnormal situation – the dissociative experience of trauma is a way of coping with overwhelming stress when no other solution is present. Conversely, the more agency or choice that someone has in an overwhelming situation, the less likely they are to develop PTSD. Since children already have very limited capacity for solution (they cannot escape the situation, they cannot care for themselves, they have limited emotional capacity, they cannot physically defend themselves, they often cannot express their needs, etc.) it is a critical best practice for educators and other adults working with traumatized youth to provide ample opportunity for choice – particularly in moments of escalation and high stress.

As an adult, enhancing your own capacity for agency (the ability to take effective action, maintain boundaries, and establish solution) is a key part of resolving trauma symptoms.

Since stress and threat-response are a function of our central nervous system, a complete understanding of trauma requires a primer on the nervous system and the fight-or-flight response. We will explore this topic in our next post.

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