I’d been staying in my home for several weeks when my partner encouraged me outside, for a walk to look at what’s growing in our allotment. He knows it’s a good suggestion as it doesn’t involve a shop, people, roads or pavements: things I’ve struggled with recently. We step through the gate and walk in the sunshine to our patch. I can see people in the path ahead of me. I don’t like it, what if they don’t move? My breathing gets shallow. I clench my jaw. The light is too bright out here. My husband goes to take my hand and I flick it away. I don’t want to make eye contact, speak or be touched. We walk past the people. I can feel my heart pumping and my shoulders ache for some reason. I get really tired. It takes me a couple of days to feel normal again.
I’m pretty well read on stress, anxiety and trauma so I know there’s something happening in my brain that’s resulting in the physical reactions I’m having. I could show you what happens to a dysregulated nervous system. I’ve even got the PowerPoint slides! I just didn’t think I could get dysregulated, so quickly. There had been some other things happening in my life before Covid-19 that were getting me a bit antsy, that feed into how I’m feeling now. But these reactions are next level.
I think back to some of the behaviours I saw from children in schools. The child clinging to the Teaching Assistant because the classroom layout had changed to hold a circle. The child who goes under the table. The child who sat too close to me and wanted to hold my hand. The child who hummed all the time. I have no doubt some of these children had experience of toxic stress and/or trauma.
Being aware and recognising the effects of trauma is important as we return to school. We all feel a great pressure to normalize things for ourselves and young people, to rush back into the familiar, to be positive. Of course, these things are important, but if not addressed, the events we are still going through and the ensuing trauma can be the invisible enemy in the room. This then has implications for health, learning, education, and physical, emotional and social development.
Gabor Mate talks about the things that can trigger our fight/flight/freeze response:
- Lack of control
- Lack of information
Beyond the threat of a virus, how have the stories and experiences of a lack of PPE, the ‘R’ number, domestic abuse, neglect, care homes, Black Lives Matter contributed to people’s uncertainty, to personal and social conflict? How out of control do people feel as we head towards the ‘new normal’? What information are we getting (or not getting) that either helps or hinders these feelings?
According to Mate, these feelings result in ‘consummatory behaviours’. Consummare is Latin for ‘to complete’ making consummatory behaviour something that removes the danger or relieves the tension caused by it. Recently, when I’ve felt uncertain, out of control, suspicious of information, I’ve reacted by tightening what I can control. I don’t go out. I stop others in my house from going out. I stop reading and talking. I do soothing things like cleaning. I realise, I am the kid that hums.
The image of the iceberg is an oldie but a goodie. We see behaviours (the ‘tip’) and try to correct them: we encourage the child out from under the table. We judge and try to correct the observed behaviour without digging down into what might be causing it. But these behaviours are ‘consummatory’; the child is under the table because doing that helps them to feel better. They can’t explain their actions through cognition or by rationalising. Asking them to stop or change the behaviour is problematic.
What might be causing the behaviour can be a multitude of experiences (the ‘berg’) that could include Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), experience of systemic injustice, feeling labelled and misunderstood, those around reacting in ways that are unhealthy. As a result of these experiences, we might feel out of control, uncertain, in conflict. These feelings result in us doing things to make us feel better. Sometimes we can articulate what we need and have someone emotionally attuned and intelligent to express this to. Sometimes, we have no idea what we need (or even that we have a need) so humming helps a lot. Or we don’t answer the phone. Or we obsess on Twitter. Or we drink too much or we clean. These consummatory behaviours help to relieve the stress.
What can we do to address the effects of trauma at this time? Bruce Perry’s Reason, Relate, Regulate triangle can help us slow down and support others in ways that are trauma-aware.
Too often we jump to reasoning. Some of us might even be trained in five really helpful restorative questions we can be tempted to use to help understand what is happening for a person. Given the current situation – stop. Look for ways to regulate first. This can be done best through movement or breathing. Walk. Do something physical. This can include singing or dancing. If you know Tai Chi – do it! If you know lullabies, sing them! If you are busting to demo your lockdown TikTok moves with them – do it! Play games or do activities. Please note that the images in the triangle show physical contact. Given the current context, think about how else you can offer co-regulation through gentle eye contact [and not expecting it back], open body language – coming down to their level, facing them, being aware of facial expressions.
Only when we are regulated, can we effectively relate to others. A regulated person can support someone who is dysregulated using the relationship to connect with them. You’ve sensed something’s not ok with them so use your empathy to name it “I can see things are really hard for you right now”. Comfort them however it’s appropriate to do so.
All this regulating and relating will be doing great things inside the brain to calm the freeze/ fight/ flight response. You are literally helping them to form positive neurological pathways they can revisit the next time something happens. By feeling safe in the relationship, their brain will send hormones into the body with messages to muscles helping them to relax and breathe.
Only now can you effectively move to reasoning, to talking and planning what they might do the next time the behaviour happens. Only at this point might they be able to recognise their consummatory (soothing) behaviours. This is a good time to ask those five wonderful (restorative) questions and support them in a new strategy
In the presence of a positive relationship, via regulating activities (hula hooping and bike riding) I have come to recognise the reasons for my recent behaviours. Things are changing. I‘m still cleaning a lot but I’m back in the allotment and more confident to talk about what I need.
For more information on trauma, check out the following books for children and adults…
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk
The Simple Guide to Understanding Trauma in Children, Betsy de Thierry
Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma, Daniela F. Sieff
Draw on Your Emotions, Margot Sunderland
Feelings: Inside my heart and in my head, Libby Walden