Trauma Lenses: Understanding What Happens During a Traumatic Event

One of the advances in neuroscience is that we now have good evidence of how the brain operates when someone experiences a traumatic event. Further, indicators now help us understand that once children or adults have experienced some kind of trauma, they change how they react to varied situations. This and related findings have led us toward development of a trauma-competency certification program.

Trauma lenses for professionals

Being trauma-competent as a professional will make a difference in a child's life.
Without adequate understanding of trauma, professionals may misinterpret a child’s behavior.

Trauma can result from many different situations, such as physical or sexual abuse.  However,  being burned or trapped, seeing a violent act, watching someone die, experiencing financial devastation or sudden similar tragedies can create the symptoms of a traumatized brain.

Memories are created in a little structure called the amygdala which serves as the router in our brain.  When we sense something that can trigger a memory, the information goes to the amygdala which, in turn, sends it to a part of the brain based on the nature of the memory. 

A traumatic memory alerts the brain to a traumatic brain state.

traumatic memory triggers the brain into high alert or terror, often causing many children and adults to re-create the traumatic event in their minds. This re-creation significantly impacts not only how they think but also how they react. Consequently, the memory releases chemicals in their bodies reflecting whether or not they can be in a good “brain state.” 

Here is a brief summary of how these brain states impact someone’s cognitive abilities:

When calm, a person can think abstractly.
When aroused, a person can think concretely.

When alarmed, a person tends to respond emotionally.
When fearful, a person is more reactive.

When terrorized, a person is more reflexive.

So, the significance of the trauma affects the extent we can think or cannot think clearly. 

The greater the fear, the lower in the brain we travel, and those low areas of the brain produce more reflexive (difficult) reactions. In other words, if we experience a serious traumatic memory, we can become reflexive in our reactions.  In turn, in reflexive moments, we (our brains) are usually not in a place to consider rational details but moreso in the fight or flight syndrome that we once learned in biology class.

Understanding trauma and brain states is an advantage for professionals.

Learning about trauma’s impact to the brain is important when working with children and adults because if they are triggered by a traumatic memory, the memory will affect their ability to handle situations around them. 

Here’s an example. Imagine a child who is in an abusive relationship at home being in a classroom in which a teacher’s firm instruction triggers a traumatic event. The child probably will not learn because he or she may not be hearing the teacher’s words nor be able to respond to normal relational cues. The child’s inability to move from a traumatic re-creation can be misunderstood and perceived as a behavioral problem. Labeling or other unhelpful consequences might occur.

Professionals who are trauma-informed—who have new trauma lenses—will be looking at the child’s behavior with their trauma lenses to better understand why the child is reacting adversely and inappropriately to the situation around him/her.

Without adequate understanding of trauma, professionals may misinterpret a child’s behavior.

Please understand my point in this. For those who work with children, it is exquisitely important to learn about the impact of trauma.  Teachers, counselors and other professionals who work with children need at least a basic education in trauma, its impact on the brain and to the responses of a victim. 

While some children may seem aloof or inattentive, they may be, in fact, dissociative, meaning that they have removed themselves from reality for a short period of time in order to cope with their traumatic memory. Not understanding that this type of reaction is a possibility may result in an inaccurate assessment of what is going on, as well as a misunderstanding of typical responses which can affect the child’s future.

If we are going to build systems of care to truly meet the needs of children and adults, being competently trauma-informed will be essential to proper diagnoses and treatment of the traumatized individual. Trauma-competence will also impact how we approach the client during reaction to a traumatic memory and how we see the person’s life as a whole. These lenses can truly make the difference between a good outcome and a very poor one, as we deal with so many children and adults who have been severely traumatized. 

An online trauma-certification program is in development.

We are very hopeful at Lakeside to have a trauma certification program on-line by the end of this year. The program will be designed to help professionals become trauma competent. 

When professionals are equipped to help victims of trauma, we will have significant opportunities to provide safe environments for trauma victims. Further, we can provide focused interventions and therapy that will provide healing and recovery. 

I am truly excited about such an opportunity nationwide.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *