Trauma Response

Recent advances in neurobiology, especially over the last decade, have given us transformative insights into what happens to the brain when someone experiences trauma. Most relevant to educators is the discovery that the brain is flooded with both cortisol and adrenaline, affecting memory formation.

As Maura McInerney and Amy McKlindon write: “When exposed to a stressor, the body responds through a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ response that activates several systems in the body and releases stress hormones that are designed to be proactive for survival. However, this response becomes dangerous to the brain, rather then protective, when repeated traumatic experiences lead to an over-reactive stress system that can lock the brain and body into a constant state of emergency.”

This constant state of emergency is perhaps one of the most significant piece of information that I think we need to know as we seek to shape a trauma-informed, hope-infused andragogy.

Also important to understand is that post-traumatic stress responses can mimic initial trauma responses. Professor Dan Siegel of UCLA developed a model called the Window of Tolerance. The window of tolerance is the space “where you are best able to cope with the punches life throws at you. You’re calm, but not tired. You’re alert, but not anxious.” Those who have experienced trauma (especially complex trauma) may have a smaller window of tolerance than those who have not experienced trauma.

When someone is thrown off balance, whether because of significant stress, reminders of trauma, or re-traumatization, s/he may experience dysregulation that can lead to hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Hyperarousal tends to mimic the “fight” response and can manifest as feelings of anxiety, anger, and perceived threat. Hypoarousal tends to mimic the “flight” or “freeze” response and can manifest as feelings of numbness, shutting down, and depression.

Trauma-Informed intervention and therapy seeks to equip trauma survivors with the skills to navigate dysregulation, return to the window of tolerance more quickly, and expand the window of tolerance to diminish the instances of dysregulation over time.

Trauma-informed educators can benefit from an awareness of this model as they teach. Students who may be dysregulated might appear withdrawn or agitated. Addressing such things as behavioral problems rather than as trauma responses may contribute to re-traumatization. [Important Note: Students should never be asked to disclose trauma. Faculty are not trained therapists and should not engage in trauma-informed intervention or therapy.]

Stellar resources, including a PDF of the infograph on this page, are available on the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine website.