Is it Trauma?

In March of 2020, it was undeniable: The novel coronavirus was a serious threat to public health, and it was heading our way. As someone who cares deeply about the wellbeing of my students, I wanted to help prepare my fellow educators for what they might encounter in their classrooms if our nation faced even a fraction of what was then taking place in Italy. 

That’s when I put together a public webinar: “Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning.” 

Though grounded in the neurobiology of learning, the premise of the webinar was simple: When our brains are “hijacked” by strong negative emotions, meaningful learning becomes difficult. However, educators can help students “negotiate” with their brains. Students can inform their brains that the perceived threat is not imminent and, for the time being, they can choose to move forward. This strategy facilitates continued learning. 

One of my colleagues saw the webinar description and remarked, “Is it trauma?” 

He advised me to be more measured with my title, so that I would not seem alarmist.

 The Everyday Trauma of the Pandemic

My colleague’s belief is commonly held: Trauma has to be the result of a dramatic, violent, and out-of-the-ordinary event, such as combat or a car accident. 

However, as a neuroscientist, my definition of psychological trauma includes any event that disrupts homeostasis (our physiological balance and coherence).

I appreciated my colleague’s feedback. But I am a researcher, and given the gravity of what was happening around the world, and the transmission rate of COVID-19, I thought, “If this isn’t trauma at the moment, it certainly will be.”

Naturally, I kept the title of the webinar intact.

But I wasted no time getting caught in the semantics with my colleague. I had work to do.

I have been trained to see the world through the lens of what the brain is experiencing. And I feared that what was coming could challenge our brains in ways we were not prepared for–and to be unprepared for dramatic and ongoing changes to our environment is traumatic.

Our brain acts as predictive machines, constantly gathering information from their surroundings to keep us safe. Part of this system entails depending on others (and their brains) for survivability. Therefore, our brains are not well-equipped for social distancing and quarantines, because we are not meant to exist in isolation.

Additionally, I knew that the uncertainty we all shared about this “novel” disease was bound to put stress on our brains. Waking up every day and not knowing if you might catch the virus, how it might affect your health, or the course of action to best protect your loved ones–it would continually stress our nervous systems. 

I didn’t yet understand how this would be compounded by the radical change in our day-to-day lives–the way in which work has become more isolated and challenging, the changes to our daily routines, and the ongoing grief and sadness. 

But as the pandemic unfolded, I continued to evaluate it with an academic lens. Adding to my own observations, I spoke with thousands of students and educators from around the world. 

Two themes emerged: 

  • First, people are overwhelmed in ways that I’ve never witnessed. It’s the type of exhaustion where one is expected to go about their life as usual despite energy being drained out of their body without any replenishment. 
  • Second, people do not want to be defined by their exhaustion or trauma. They want to bounce back and heal. Students have repeatedly mentioned to me that they want the emotional fortitude to face present-day challenges.

That’s why, when I engage in discussions about chronic or toxic stress or trauma, I am vigilant not to present our situation as doom-and-gloom or perpetuate a narrative of victimhood. 

But I also don’t sugarcoat the truth. Regardless of the terms we choose to use–such as “acute trauma” or “toxic stress”–I don’t trivialize the fact that things are tough. I am well aware that there was a mental health crisis among young people before the pandemic, and it’s only been exacerbated during the pandemic. 

Instead, when I speak with educators, I talk about the neuroscience of stress and its impact on how we learn. I also talk about neuroplasticity, our human ability to adapt, and the opportunity we have as individuals and communities to learn and engage with solutions, to thrive, and to transform into a better version of ourselves.

Over the past year, I have been excited to see higher education paying more attention to well-being and holistic teaching. But I am also concerned at how the term “trauma-informed teaching” is being thrown around without truly being understood. 

In fact, I recently facilitated a faculty workshop for a teaching and learning conference where I was the one who requested that the organizers not use the word “trauma” in the title! Not because I don’t believe there is trauma, but because I am concerned about the dilution of the term’s import.

There are so many unanswered questions about trauma-informed practices within the context of higher education. For instance:

  • How do trauma-informed practices in higher education benefit the instructor and students? 
  • How should instructors practice trauma-informed teaching and learning when they themselves are perhaps dealing with their own trauma? 
  • How might instructors balance between being flexible and accommodating, firm and challenging? 
  • What are the barriers to creating trauma-informed relationships in the classroom and at the institution?

But before we can find those answers, we need to understand what trauma is–especially in the context of learning environments.

Trauma and Higher Education: Misconceptions and Truths

In recent years, there’s been an increasing interest in the social and emotional elements of learning. I have been excited to see this shift, because it’s grounded in the science of learning. However, I have also come across educators who are skeptical of using a teaching framework that centers on emotions. These critics tend to share two common misconceptions.

The first common misconception I often hear is that trauma-informed education enables students to be weak, lazy, and academically unchallenged. But trauma-informed education does not say educators should forgo structure and deadlines and academic challenge; in fact, these educational elements remain as vital as before–if not more so. When the brain is overwhelmed, having a predictable structure can provide positive reinforcements that reduce stress and increase the likelihood of success.

The second misconception is that teachers will have to become, or work in coordination with, licensed therapists or mental health experts. But trauma-informed education doesn’t ask us to diagnose or treat our students. Even when we talk with our students about their challenges, it’s not our job to assess the severity of those challenges. And while we can assume that our students are struggling, we shouldn’t make assumptions about the (subjective) scope of that anguish within each student. 

What trauma-informed education asks us to do is facilitate relationships–because a break in relationships is at the core of psychological trauma. We can facilitate meaningful connections between faculty members and students, students with their peers, students with the learning materials, and even students with themselves. We should let them know that we see them and that they matter. We should make sure they understand that we will advocate for their learning and success. 

Trauma-informed teaching recognizes that no meaningful learning can happen without genuine connections–and that relationships can be profoundly healing. Now more than ever, such intentional commitment to forging a relationship-rich education is desperately needed. 

As mentioned earlier, it doesn’t ultimately matter what term we use; one thing we know for sure is that our students are struggling with their mental health. 

In 2020, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a report highlighting the need to address the mental health crisis among our nation’s youth. Murthy beckons us to respond swiftly, reminding us that “our obligation to act is not just medical—it’s moral.” We know that a failure to act, in a coordinated and holistic way, will cause greater harm. 

By acknowledging their trauma, or any mental health tribulations, we are able to respond to our student’s present-day needs with informed compassion and help them look forward to further learning.

Mays ImadMays Imad, Ph.D., member of the JED Advisory Board, is a nationally-recognized expert on trauma-informed education. She passionately advocates for institutions to make mental health a top priority and to systematically support the education of the whole student. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Physiology at Connecticut College. Mays received her undergraduate training from the University of Michigan–Dearborn where she studied philosophy. She received her doctoral degree in Cellular & Clinical Neurobiology from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Arizona in the Department of Neuroscience. 

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