By Liz Jendra and Melissa Hyde
Recently, Challenge to Change has been expanding our reach beyond the schools in which we teach. Since last October, Challenge to Change staff has been working in facilities such as the Linn County Juvenile Detention Center, homeless youth shelters, and other residential treatment facilities for at-risk youth in our area.
In order to serve these facilities, our staff has committed themselves to growing immensely in their knowledge of the trauma-informed world. Over the past two years we have taken several training sessions to learn more about the impact of trauma in our society and how yoga can help heal. We’ve learned so much about these topics that in honor of National Mental Health Awareness Day, we thought we’d share.
First, let’s define trauma. Trauma is any event or series of events experienced by an individual that is physically or emotionally harmful and impacts a person’s brain from functioning normally in the moment and beyond. Trauma is so adverse that it often has lasting adverse effects on an individual’s daily life.
Trauma overwhelms our ability to cope and threatens our foundation of safety. It can reduce one’s sense of self-agency and autonomy. Trauma impacts our physical body, energetic body, our mental/emotional body, our ability to access our intuition, and our capacity to feel joy.
When we experience a threat, our bodies automatically work to protect us through enacting our fight, flight or freeze response system. However, when one experiences trauma, this protective system often becomes altered. Our ability to sense safety or danger is compromised, and our fight, flight, or freeze response may stay heightened for prolonged periods of time. If one experiences enough trauma, this response may actually never turn off. When this happens, the body and brain are in a constant state of alarm, which dramatically alters the way we interact with the world.
Trauma is extremely significant and prevalent in our society. Approximately 70% of adults experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, and more than two-thirds of children report having experienced one traumatic event by the age of 16. While trauma is detrimental at any age, it is especially harmful for children. This is because their brains are still developing, and any traumatic event impacts healthy development. For this reason, a special term has been chosen by medical professionals for trauma that is experienced in childhood: ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).
Luckily, there is a positive side to the news regarding trauma. Scientists and doctors have discovered that there are Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) that combat childhood trauma. Some of these include being able to talk about your feelings, participating in community traditions, developing a sense of belonging while in high school, feeling supported by friends, and having at least two non-parental adults who take a genuine interest in you.
You’re probably wondering where yoga comes in. Yoga has the potential to play an important role in one’s healing from trauma. While yoga as a healing mechanism cannot be guaranteed for every individual and we as yoga instructors do not claim to be able to heal another person, we can create an environment through a yoga practice that creates the conditions in which healing is more likely to occur. This is because activating the relaxation response in an individual combats toxic stress.
Research has shown that yoga can produce benefits that may allow an individual who has experienced trauma to build resilience and self-regulation skills. Yoga has been shown to strengthen the ability to be present in the moment, to develop the ability to respond versus react, to nurture self-compassion, and to develop healthy coping mechanism. It has also been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain and/or illness, and PTSD.
For individuals who have experienced trauma, oftentimes they may feel a loss of control of their bodies and lives that may lead to some of the symptoms shared prior. Yoga and the individual work that is done on the mat has the potential to give back power over our own bodies and mental health.
When working with children who may have experienced trauma, our goal is to give them choices, increase their ability to feel sensation and receive accurate messages from their bodies, increase their ability to be an agent in their own life, increase their resilience, and give them tools to help their protective nervous systems back to regulation.
Finding ways to alleviate and combat trauma is a shared concern in our society. We at Challenge to Change are hopeful that in sharing our mission to spread yoga and mindfulness, we are doing our part to help alleviate some of the pain and suffering that trauma brings.