As the stories of teachers pour in from around the country of their return to their classrooms to clean them out, end the year, and get ready for summer, one thing is resoundingly clear: teachers have suffered some deep emotional trauma this year.
Although trauma is widely accepted as deep loss, related to physical injury, or even death, trauma is highly subjective. How each individual traumatic event affects you also depends on prior trauma, how much secondary trauma you’ve experienced (so dealing with the trauma your students have faced can change how trauma affects you), how long the event is, other mental illnesses, your support system, and your use or misuse of substances.
To add to the mountain of what educators may be facing, the fact that the trauma is widespread also affects the level of intensity. If everyone around you is equally traumatized, it’s hard to find help. Everyone is in the “trauma bus” together, so finding people who are well enough to help in a mental and emotional emergency can be very difficult.
The great news is, though, that the majority of people who face trauma are able to deal with it healthily, keeping it from developing into full PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Commonly, fear, anger, guilt, depression, and anxiety are reactions everyone has when faced with trauma. These reactions typically happen earlier in those who do not develop PTSD.
What you do next may help determine how long the trauma lasts and whether or not it will create a full-blown mental illness.
Acceptance of the Abnormal Events
Trauma and dealing with trauma takes time. It’s normal to react and have reactions to trauma that last much longer than the event itself. With the pandemic, the trauma will continue for as long as things are unsettled. Then after things begin settling, we’ll feel the repercussions for what may be a significant amount of time.
In other words, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Give yourself ways to maintain your emotional and mental health through the long run, and accept that what we considered “normal” won’t be a part of who we are collectively for an indeterminate amount of time.
Flexibility is key.
Remember, although you can’t change events or other people, you can control your reaction to them. Learning to accept outward changes while maintaining inner health and strength will build your resilience and cause you to be far more healthy in the future.
Be Aware, Be Present
Know what is happening to you mentally and emotionally. Stay connected to your feelings, and be aware of an increase in anxiety, sadness, fear, frustration, and feelings of impending doom. Use your feelings as thermometers. When you feel yourself escalating, use your coping skills.
Be mindful of your surroundings and commit to being present in the joyful, happy moments. Find the people around you who are helping, appreciate tiny animals, enjoy your time with friends and family, and spend time doing things that make you happy. While you do those things, be fully present. Use those positive moments as pools of joy that you can return to again and again.
Make memories that will anchor you to life.
Breathe, Laugh, and Create a New Neuronal Connection
When you are dealing with new traumas each day, remember things like focusing on your breathing. Sometimes we panic and forget to breathe. As educators, we know oxygen is necessary for adequate brain function.
Practice dealing with stressful moments by breathing in through your nose for 5 to 7 seconds, holding your breath for two, and releasing the built-up carbon dioxide by breathing out for 8 to 11 seconds. Making this a routine will really help when your body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode during a traumatic event.
Also, don’t forget to appreciate the humor that can happen even in traumatic moments. Laughter can help release hormones that rewire your brain and can even build your immunity.
Another interesting fact about bodies is that it only takes 12 seconds to create a new neuron connection. Change your view of a moment by holding a positive thought such as waves crashing in the ocean, an amazing sunrise, or the laughter of a baby for 12 seconds.
Studies have shown that if you combat fear and stressful experiences with this technique, you can literally change your view of the situation and create a more positive response. This may be what many people joke about when we tell each other, “Go to your happy place!” It’s a funny thing to say, but if it works, it works!
Know the Biggest Common Risk Factors for PTSD
Studies from other traumatic events we’ve experienced, such as 9/11, show that people who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, those survivors of personal bouts with C-19, and those who have faced either job loss or financial hardships due to the pandemic are most likely to be affected by PTSD.
Many in our education community fall within those boundaries. If these factors apply to you, be especially cognizant of the possibility that you may be more likely than others to deal with PTSD, and take precautions. Seek professional help and be aware if you start slipping into patterns that are unhelpful.
Finding a Balance
Everything in life is about balance, but striving for that balance may be one of the most important things you can do for yourself right now. Here are a few things to think about.
Balance your avoidance and acceptance of triggering events. You neither benefit from constant exposure nor from avoiding all exposure. If you’re constantly being assaulted by traumatizing events, you’ll wear yourself out. But if you consistently avoid any possibility of trauma exposure, you limit the possibilities of living.
Calculated risks are necessary sometimes.
Balancing your work/home life is difficult right now, especially for those who will continue remote learning in the upcoming school year. Finding structure and limiting the amount of time you spend thinking about and working on school-related things will definitely be helpful in keeping that balance.
The time is PERFECT for all the “healthy binges” you might normally deprive yourself of. Binge-watching favorite shows, listening to music more than usual, sleeping a bit more, reading everything in your to-be-read pile, or listening to every podcast you can get your headphones on are great ways to distract yourself. Steer clear of binges that have health risks, though, and if the show you’re watching is upsetting, find something more lighthearted to enjoy for a while.
Don’t create more trauma while trying to avoid trauma!
Also in need of balance are your exposures to news and social media. While it’s important to stay informed, limit your news intake. Don’t watch the news right before bed, and try to keep your news watching away from kids, as it can cause trauma right now for them in particular (with C-19 - there are just so many unknowns).
Social media is a great way to stay connected to your community, but it can become a trauma-tube if you aren’t careful. Try finding good things to share - happy, uplifting content that is lighthearted and not political or about being ill. Post stories about people helping each other. And of course, you can share all the cute animal photos and videos you can find - the world cannot get enough of those!
An interesting thing has come about with studies about PTSD. Although many people who have been traumatized in the past are more susceptible to negatively experiencing new trauma, the research is far from supporting the idea that all trauma is bad.
In fact, trauma presents a unique opportunity to create growth that can’t be found at any other part of life.
It’s sort of similar to the beauty that can come after a volcano. Areas around volcanoes can be some of the most beautiful, rich, flourishing geographic areas. One would think that beauty would shy away from an area of deep destruction, but life always finds a way to go on.
This time in our lives can create space for further trauma, or we can use it to build our resilience and make us better.
What will you choose?
Here are some resources we used while researching PTSD, Trauma, and coping skills.