Understanding trauma and resilience through research, real stories and reality… my reality

I’m sure you are all well aware that social factors affect health. This framework was not unfamiliar to me when I first started working at Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). I understood that social experiences can influence health, but I didn’t realize to what extent until I began a research project at MAHEC on childhood trauma.

You might be wondering how traumatic experiences from childhood are related to clinical medicine? Trauma lives in not only the mind, but also the body. There is a rapidly growing body of evidence to support this. In 1998, Drs. Anda and Feletti published a study, which found a significant correlation between health outcomes and childhood traumas (referred to as “ACEs” or adverse childhood experiences”). Adverse childhood experiences include physical, sexual or emotional abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and household dysfunction, such as losing a parent or immediate family member to death, witnessing domestic violence, or having a parent with mental illness or substance abuse. Even when controlling for variables like socioeconomic status, the researchers determined that a person who has more than three ACEs has an increased risk for liver disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease among other medical conditions.

After reading the 1998 ACE study, I asked myself, how does this happen? How do childhood experiences from 30 years ago have such a lasting physical imprint on a person? My curiosity prompted me to dive into the medical literature. I yearned for a scientific explanation. Luckily for me, since the initial 1998 study, scientists have made tremendous progress in understanding the physiology and neurobiology of trauma. A lot of the research has explored the role of the fight-or-flight response, which, as many of you probably already know, is an adaptive system in our bodies to help us in threatening or dangerous situations. This response sends energy to your muscles when you need to suddenly slam on the breaks to avoid a car crash. It increases your heart rate and respiratory rate when you see a bear in the woods and need to run. But imagine if that bear was your physically abusive father… imagine if you felt a sense of danger every night when “the bear came home from work,” explains pediatrician Dr. Burke Harris in her Ted Talk on ACEs. When a child is repeatedly exposed to trauma, his or her system of alarm will be continuously activated. The expert psychiatrist Dr. van der Kolk states, “Long after the actual event has passed, the body may keep sending out signals to escape a threat that no longer exists”. These excess hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, can cause toxic stress and have a lasting impact on the brain and the body. ACEs are both a social issue and a medical concern.

Learning about ACEs flipped a light switch inside of me. I reconsidered my approach to medicine and  began to think about addressing the underlying cause of disease, which involves addressing trauma in many instances, instead of only treating the symptoms. I started seeing connections between childhood trauma and many other public health issues. During my time at MAHEC, I have witnessed the devastating impact of the opioid crisis on individuals, families and communities in western North Carolina. After I learned that opioids and other substances act on receptors in the brain and essentially numb the neurobiological effects of trauma, I began to examine our opioid epidemic with a different lens. What if we also have an ACEs epidemic?

My research on ACEs greatly influenced the way I approached my clinical work at MAHEC. I began to comprehend why people engage in certain behaviors. My mentality shifted from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what’s happened to you?” I began to ask patients more questions. I made a deliberate effort to learn about their backgrounds, to listen to their stories in order to understand. Hearing patients’ personal narratives transformed my abstract understanding of trauma into a tangible reality. ACEs were not a phenomenon in an academic journal anymore; they were real, raw human experiences.

After listening to some truly astounding stories, I felt overwhelmed and helpless. What can I do to address trauma? There isn’t a miracle medication to erase the past. Although there is no magic pill, I learned that experts have developed many specific strategies that can boost patients’ resilience and reduce the effects of trauma. There is currently a movement in public health to teach doctors and other allied health professionals about how to promote resilience strategies and provide “trauma-informed” medical care. Through MAHEC, I learned about an innovative approach called the Community Resiliency Model, which aims to educate not only the patient, but also the surrounding community about the effects of trauma and empower them with the techniques and skills to boost resilience. Some of these resilience techniques can literally reset the nervous system, mitigating the physiological effects of trauma. The Community Resiliency Model is based on the notion that “it takes a village” not only to raise a child, but also to heal one. Helping an individual recover from trauma requires bringing together community members to create a trauma-informed, resiliency-focused support network.

Several months into my fellowship, I gained a new perspective—a highly personal one— on trauma after my own adverse experience. During the fall of 2016, my older brother passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly. When I received the phone call, my fight-or-flight response was activated before my brain could begin to process what had actually happened. Trauma lives in not only the mind, but also the body. As I heard the words “he’s gone” uttered, I felt my heart rate rapidly accelerate. I began to hyperventilate inside the Asheville Target. It was the strangest thing because I had learned all about the physiology of trauma from my research on ACEs. I knew exactly what was happening to my body, but I couldn’t do anything about it.

The weeks that followed my brother’s death are still a blur to me. But one thing I distinctly remember is having a loss of words. When I tried to speak, nothing came out. There weren’t words that could fully capture the horror of what I endured. I thought back to something I learned from my research: when experts used neuroimaging techniques to analyze traumatized brains, they saw that Broca’s area, the part of the brain that controls speech production, was shut off. This happened to me. My brain physically could not produce words (on a side note, I have found writing this blog post to be an empowering way to reclaim my words).

I was a living example of everything I had learned about through work. As a result, I was better able to grasp patients’ experiences of trauma. I felt a deeper sense of empathy for them. I had an urge to tell all of my patients, “Your pain is valid. I recognize and understand your suffering and I’m so deeply sorry for your trauma.”

When I returned back to my life in Asheville, I struggled… a lot. I could barely concentrate on simple tasks at work. It felt like my brain was surrounded by a fog of trauma. My grief felt like a heavy backpack full of bricks, an unbearable weight that I carried around constantly. I would frequently break down crying during the middle of the day. Whenever it happened, I would say to myself: Get it together, Natalie. Control yourself. But I couldn’t always. Trauma and grief are incredibly powerful. I felt overwhelmed. Above all, I needed support from the people around me, but I felt guilty and embarrassed asking for help. I prided myself on doing things independently. I can make it through this on my own, I thought. I was also very accustomed to helping and taking care of others, so it was deeply uncomfortable for me to become the patient, to acknowledge that I needed to be healed and cared for. However, once I admitted this to myself, it made all the difference.

With the Community Resiliency Model in mind, I began reaching out to the people around me—to my community in Asheville. Once I asked for their support and help, my trauma became less overwhelming. There were more people to help me carry my heavy load of bricks. Why did I ever try and do this on my own? My community has been unbelievably supportive and kind. I will never forget the compassion I received during this time. I also started using the resilience techniques that I learned about on myself. Over time, it has become easier to breath. Although I am still profoundly sad about my loss, I feel more resilient and connected because of my supportive community. It took a village to help me on my path of healing.

My raw pain is now the underlying force that fuels my passion for medicine, health and healing. After learning about and living through my own trauma during my Davidson Impact Fellowship, I understand that both health and healing are complex processes. Given that social realities impact these processes, I recognize that my situation is one of privilege. It greatly disturbs me to think about the fact that there are so many people, especially young children and socially vulnerable individuals, who experience horrific traumas with less resources and support than I had. I am more determined than ever to combat this injustice and serve as a supportive resource to vulnerable patients; to be present with them on their journey towards healing.

Ultimately, this year has left me inspired to provide trauma-informed care to my patients and to educate my peers (why I chose to write about it in this blog post), colleagues, family and friends about ACEs and resilience. I hope that by spreading this message throughout my medical career, I can help my patients and my community become more resilient. It really takes a village—a resilient, supportive, connected village—not just a person with a stethoscope, to help people heal.

 

In the shoes of a therapist for kids who have caused sexual harm

(For your information: the following stories contain potentially heavy or upsetting material. They are modifications and conglomerations of stories from nearly 200 kids and families throughout North Carolina. The identifying information and situations are fictional and could not be linked to our clients, past or present.)

Caleb, Stage II, Affect regulation and Attachment, Family

Caleb and his dad both report that they have never gotten along. Caleb’s older brother, Shawn, is currently incarcerated for selling drugs. Shawn coerced Caleb into watching pornography from the ages of 5 to 8 with him and would laugh when Caleb said he didn’t like the show or wanted to watch something else. Caleb was really close with his mother who died of cancer three years ago. A year after his mother’s death, he approached a classmate in the bathroom and touched him inappropriately. He has been in treatment for the last 5 months. Since Caleb’s offense, dad confided in you that he wants to be more involved in his son’s life. Caleb is currently living in foster care and he spends his time playing video games during home visits. Caleb’s dad does not want to stop Caleb from playing video games so there is little interaction during home visits. Family reunification is critical for treatment success and it is promising that Caleb’s dad is engaged in the treatment process.

Welcome to our bi-weekly TASK (Treatment Alternatives for Sexualized Kids) Program staff meeting where we discuss case files of our clients. TASK is a treatment model designed to meet the complex, heterogeneous needs of youth who have caused sexual harm. As the newest member of the team, you will be presenting background information for your 4 kids and current barriers you are experiencing in treatment. We will offer guiding questions to develop an action plan that could overcome the barrier. Your current clients are Matthew, Samantha,  Albert, and Rashawn. Go ahead and tell us about how treatment is going:

 

Matthew, Stage V, Risk mitigation, Affect regulation

Matthew, age 17, is in Stage V and has led conversation and offered honest responses to others during group therapy. His primary caregiver, grandma, is supportive and cooperative. She has mastered strategies on how to enforce boundaries for Matthew while still encouraging him. He wants to get a job but his grades are well below average and he is skipping class every few days, a violation of his safety plan. He told you a neighbor offered him a job mowing lawns. You would like him to be able to get a job but know that he has a pattern of starting projects and stopping halfway. You are excited about the overall progress throughout the past year of treatment and want to set him up for success as we approach his program graduation date.

Questions and action steps offered by the clinicians:

Review his safety plan and utilize motivational interviewing. Does he recognize any connection between skipping class and the rigor involved in maintaining a job? What are some of his big goals? What obstacles, like poor grades, might prevent him from reaching his goals?

Does grandma have influence in his life? Is she able to challenge him to attend school?

Has he established supportive friendships since starting treatment?

 

Samantha, Stage III, Conflict resolution and healthy sexuality, Family

Samantha is 13. She called last week during school and told you she felt like she was going to have a panic attack. You deescalated the situation by phone and she was able to function the rest of the day. During this week’s family meeting, you realize that adopted mom and dad are unaware that Samantha has struggled with anxiety. Instead, they are upset that she has not cleaned her room every day and washed the dishes like they had discussed.  They spend the first 20 minutes of the meeting describing everything Samantha has not done since your last meeting. Based on your conversations with adopted mom and dad from early on, they have tightened up their discipline and increased Samantha’s chores considerably. After 40 minutes have passed, mom announces that they caught Samantha with inappropriate pictures on her phone 2 weeks ago. Since then, they have checked Samantha’s phone every night before bed. Lastly, Samantha told them she might be interested in a boy in her class but mom and dad inform you that she is not allowed to talk to him anymore.

Questions to consider:

Have you had a conversation with mom and dad about their perspectives around healthy relationships and attitudes towards sex?

Can you provide mom and dad with specific suggestions about how to handle crises?

At the end of the meeting, inform mom, dad, and Samantha that you are going to work together to review Samantha’s safety plan in the next family meeting. Provide time for all 4 of you to contribute and ask questions. Ideally, a reviewed safety plan will address the insecurity and doubt felt by her adopted parents, provide age-appropriate autonomy to Samantha, and ensure she is progressing towards her stage goals without causing harm.

 

Albert, Stage II, Family, Affect Regulation

Albert lives with his aunt and uncle. He is in Stage II and this is your 3rd family meeting. From the beginning, aunt has requested he be moved to therapeutic foster care, unaware that some of Albert’s mood fluctuations are a result of the family system. Albert has been diagnosed with ADHD and has broken a few dishes and a chair since you started meeting with the family. The uncle drinks frequently and Albert’s outbursts coincide with alcohol related outbursts. Additionally, Albert has a history of abandonment and his parents are no longer involved in his life. During individual therapy, Albert admits he is often unable to control his anger and has had trouble sleeping recently. He has a few friends but no one he is close with. When you try to gauge whether the aunt and uncle have motivation to change, they impatiently bring up the idea of foster care.

Questions to consider:

Are there pro-social opportunities in which Alex can get involved? Would he consider joining a sports team or other intramural activity? How can he gain a sense of belonging outside of home?

Have you tried talking to the aunt and uncle about their lives apart from Alex? Showing interest in them could foster an engaged relationship that would allow them to feel more comfortable participating in the treatment process.

Could there another diagnosis besides ADHD? Could you screen for other signs of depression or bipolar?

 

Rashawn, Stage II, Crisis at school, Trauma

At school this week, Rashawn got angry during class and walked out. He was not cooperating with his teacher and the teacher grabbed him and tried to make him sit down. Rashawn responded by screaming and cursing and nearly punched the teacher. The school called you after Rashawn had calmed down a little bit and was sitting in the principal’s office. Rashawn was verbally and physically abused by an aunt from the age of 7 to 9. He has no other trauma history as far as you know.

Questions to consider:

Is the school and the teacher aware of Rashawn’s safety plan?

Have the teachers had trauma-informed training on how to handle crises?

Does Rashawn recognize when his emotions are escalating?

Does he feel comfortable or able to call you or another support person when his emotions start escalating?

 

After this meeting, you have time with Samantha and her family,  Matthew and his grandma, and with Rashawn, individually. Additionally, you have group tonight so after staffing, you get ready to hit the road to meet up with Samantha. You take a few minutes to make sure you and the other therapist are on the same page about the group agenda tonight. You are excited to hear updates from the kids. Looking forward to a full day!

Thank you for reading more about what the day to day is like for our TASK clinicians. The research projects are still underway. We are currently revising the project plan in order to incorporate more preliminary steps before a more rigorous investigation. The therapists, business team, data team, and countless others have become a cohesive, engaged working group as we bring together our questions, experiences, and expectations for this project!

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