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Recovering from trauma

April 14, 2017

Trauma.  It's a word that has entered the mainstream.  It's a medical term indicating sudden, severe bodily harm that requires immediate medical treatment.  It's also used in general conversation to describe experiences that have left footprints on our minds and our emotions.

 

It's a useful term, and we use it interchangeably with discomfort.  "Uuuuugh, my dad came to school with me and it was SO traumatic."
 

 

We use it similar to how we use the word "love."  We say it about our favorite foods, and also about our family, partners, and pets -- and we know that depending on how we use it, we mean different things.

 

So when we talk about the trauma that abused and neglected kids experience, we mean something other than the embarrassment of a parent coming to school with us, but exactly are we talking about?

When children are subjected to chronic abuse or neglect, their young systems are virtually bathed in cortisol, causing children to grow up believing that the world is a dangerous place, to be hyper-vigilant, and prone to anxiety or aggression or both.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as "an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.  Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives."

 

Cortisol is a powerful hormone that is released under stress and makes us alert to spot threats in the environment, and when experiencing terrible events, we are flooded with it.

 

When children are subjected to chronic abuse or neglect, their young systems are virtually bathed in cortisol, causing children to grow up believing that the world is a dangerous place, to be hyper-vigilant, and prone to anxiety or aggression or both.

 

This cortisol bath may also have very long-term consequences.  The constant exposure will cause certain genes to express differently (described as epigenetics) and may even be passed down to following generations in that altered state.

 

 

 

 

The Adverse Childhood Experiences study shows that the outcomes for who have had adverse experiences as children (i.e., trauma) have a whole host of physical and mental health problems later in life, including increased involvement with the justice system, depression, chronic disease, substance abuse, and increased likelihood to be victimized and to victimize others.

 

This has profound impact on the work that we do in child welfare.  Parents who are abusing or neglecting their children (often connected to substance abuse) are highly likely to have trauma from their own previous experiences.  When children come into foster care, they not only have experienced a great deal of trauma prior, but the separation from their own family is itself a trauma-producing event.

 

Treatment for and recovery from trauma is critical to stopping this cycle of victimization and abuse.  It can be done, but it requires hard work and the correct treatment.  But most of all it requires hope and the willingness to look beyond the ugly result of trauma that can be so difficult to encounter, such as belligerence, suspicion, and denial.

 

But it can be done.  There is hope.  And it often starts with the question: "what happened to you?"

 

Tonier Cain is living proof that it can be done, and I hope you listen to her story and gather strength and inspiration.

 

This is what we gotta do.

 

 

 

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