Trauma and Resilience for Adults
What Are They?
According to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), “Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Researchers distinguish single-incident “trauma” (e.g., a sexual assault), from “complex trauma,” occurring after multiple incidents, often at the hand of a significant caregiver (e.g., emotional neglect).
Some traumatic events may not be life-threatening, yet chronically negative interpersonal events can have a detrimental effect on our minds and bodies. In fact, more subtle and insidious forms of trauma like discrimination, racism, oppression, and poverty can be fundamentally life-altering.
Roy, a teacher who recently moved to the U.S. from China, experiences regular microaggressions at work. Students ask him: “What are you?” And some of his colleagues have commented with surprise, “You speak English well.” Microaggressions are slights or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, to people from marginalized groups. If Roy continues to experience microaggressions regularly, he may end up feeling more anxious, depressed, and isolated at school.
Educators carry their own trauma histories, but they can also suffer the “cost of caring” through secondary traumatic stress. When they hear students’ trauma stories, they can experience their own symptoms of emotional distress (including fear, exhaustion, guilt, cynicism, and/or avoidance), which can influence both their physical and mental health—sometimes leading to burnout.
How educators adapt and respond to stress in the short-term can have long-term effects, but they can ultimately become more resilient, despite adversity.
Why Are They Important?
Research clearly demonstrates that the cumulative effects of trauma can be detrimental to educators, which can ultimately affect students. Here are a few examples:
Trauma can affect adults’ physical and mental health, and impair their cognitive functioning, but resiliency practices can lessen the impact of trauma.
- A CDC study of over 17,000 adults indicates that greater exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can lead to more negative health outcomes in adulthood, including heart disease, cancer, and chronic lung disease.
- Trauma has also been associated with an increase in mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, PTSD, and ADHD.
- Researchers link physical neglect and emotional abuse with possible memory deficits in adulthood. In addition, anxious and depressed older adults exposed to trauma demonstrated poorer cognitive performance relative to processing speed attention, and executive functioning.
- Yet, researchers suggest that experiences, such as participating in community traditions and fostering relationships with supportive friends can ameliorate the impact of ACES.
The CDC recommends ways to cultivate resilience in their report Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). For example, a focus on learning social emotional learning skills, increased primary care, and mental health or substance abuse treatment may all serve to bolster resilience.
Trauma can change the brain, but cultivating resilience helps our brain adapt and grow.
- Research suggests that chronic stress can affect the brain structurally and functionally, and the areas of the brain most affected by trauma include the hippocampus (associated with memory), the amygdala (associated with emotional responses), and the prefrontal cortex (associated with planning, impulse control, and executive functions).
- At the same time, neural plasticity and malleability, the brain’s ability to change and reorganize in response to everyday experiences (or “stressors”), remains essential to adaptation and survival throughout our lives.
Teachers’ toxic stress can influence students’ stress levels, but working together, students and teachers can create healing environments.
- Researchers found that students’ cortisol levels (indicating stress) were higher in classrooms where teachers experienced more burnout, or feelings of emotional exhaustion. Another study suggests that some students demonstrated fewer gains in executive functions when their teachers reported high levels of stress.
- Stress may be contagious, but a sense of peace and groundedness can be contagious, too. Researcher Bessel van der Kolk claims that a brain-disease model doesn’t acknowledge 1) our capacity to heal one another; 2) our ability to use language to share our experiences and find meaning; 3) our ability to regulate our own bodies through breath, movement, and touch; and 4) our drive to change social conditions and create environments where both children and adults can thrive.
Resilience is a dynamic process that reflects positive adaptation and even growth in the face of stress and trauma. Ultimately, educators’ ability to heal from trauma is crucial in light of their work in schools. Thus, we’ve created a list of evidence-based approaches for fostering educator resilience.