By Savannah Rucker, LPC
We hear the word trauma thrown around a lot – especially after the last several years. But what is trauma? What does it look like in our everyday lives? And how can we begin to heal?
As parents, the last several years have felt incredibly traumatic. Covid-19 disrupted our lives, and while everyone was adjusting to unfamiliar territory and school closures, parents were juggling careers with kids at home. The effects of Covid-19 on our children are still being studied – but the lack of social interaction and in-person learning has taken its toll academically and on their mental health.
In addition to the pandemic, mass shootings have caused a world of uncertainty and anxiety. And you cannot live in a constant state of anxiety – it can take you down. So we wanted to start with understanding what trauma is.
We sat down with Savannah Rucker, Licensed Professional Counselor, wife, mom, and veteran, to learn how to navigate traumatic moments and seek a more peaceful mental state.
What is trauma, and what does it look like?
The constant news cycle has made trauma a buzzword these days. It’s great for us all to be plugged into what’s happening around us – but it can also just be way too much. For starters, I like to explain trauma not as what happens to you, but what happens within us after a traumatic event or exposure.
Trauma happens at a cellular level, within our bodies, and these are the effects that people experience, notice, and struggle with until resolved. Situations like divorce, death, and illness are traumatic, and the response is how you process those events. Trauma is when someone’s system hasn’t been able to recover effectively, so they start operating in a traumatized state.
It can show up in several different ways. It’s both mental and physical. People tend to connect more with the physical symptoms over the emotional responses. People may experience anxiety or panic attacks – which is your body’s way of raising its hand to say – hey, something isn’t right.
Trauma can look like poor sleep, insomnia, memory issues, or an upset stomach, like irritable bowel syndrome. These symptoms stand out because they start to impact our functioning and demand some attention.
How does trauma impact parenting?
There’s an Instagram account called The Holistic Psychologist. She speaks about a lot of this. One example might look like this: We want our kids to have a great future, and to be successful, so we become obsessed with raising our children to get into a good college. We start raising achievement machines. While the intention is in the right place, the outcome for our kids can be traumatic. Trauma impacts parenting because our attachment styles can be altered to one of the insecure attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. This trauma can be perpetuated in small ways that have tremendous outcomes. This leads to the concept of transgenerational trauma.
Many parents do not take the time to heal themselves and instead prioritize doing better for their kids. This is honorable and speaks to the beauty of love and intention. It also limits self-awareness. This continues the hyperfocus on doing. If you focus so much on the outcome of performance, we’re sending a message to our kids that’s all that matters. We’re communicating to our children that their worth is what they do.
We’ve been programmed to do something to feel better – to learn, to read – that I’ll be OK if I’m in a constant state of doing. But this allows little time to actually get to know ourselves, to understand our emotions. Emotions are not good or bad – they’re just information on how we react to things and perceive our environment.
So, while it’s important for kids to feel a sense of achievement – we don’t want it to define them. We don’t want them to become adults and not understand their emotions or how to cope with situations.
The idea of gentle parenting isn’t new – it’s attachment-based parenting – and it focuses on warm, responsive parenting while also being mindful of not praising every little thing your child does. Praise in doses and in meaningful moments. We don’t want our children relying on recognition to feel valuable. When there is an overabundance of praise and encouragement, we begin to stunt their unique development of construction of self and are unintentionally watering attachment anxiety. Instead, it’s helpful to put the question back to them. “What do you think of this work you did? What was your approach? How did you come up with this idea?” – These types of engagements with our kids can deter us from raising people pleasers.
How do we heal from traumatic experiences?
One thing you can do is actually notice when you’re not OK. When you begin to do something to “fix” feelings, ask yourself what you’re trying to fix, what is that feeling, and can you articulate it and identify it? Saying something like, “I’m working through depression, working with anxiety, going through trauma,” allows us to speak in an empowered stance about those actual experiences instead of living in the space of denial and trying to “fix” external things.
A big part of mindfulness is acceptance. Mindfulness is not a blank slate. It’s about paying attention without judgment. If you were to set a timer for one minute and pay attention to the thoughts going through your mind, what would they be? Try to listen to yourself genuinely. Notice what’s going on inside. Reflect. Notice the reactions and sensations within your body.
We need to build a tolerance for what it feels like to be connected to our emotions, allowing us to respond appropriately; otherwise, we don’t even know what emotions we’re trying to heal.
As with everything overall wellness and mental health – one size doesn’t fit all. Everyone’s care plan is going to look a little different. What we do know is that quick fixes don’t work. Quick fixes are avoidance or “control strategies”. This might look like distraction or compulsions and result in temporary relief but does not address deeper issues and then quickly return. There is no rinse and repeat that you can take and apply to your life without looking internally at what needs healing, accepting it, and being realistic in the time and attention required to heal.
How do we manage our anxiety in the context of traumatic events that can seem unpredictable and scary, like school shootings?
Let’s first look at what anxiety is – it’s not having control or the peace of mind of knowing what to do (in this case) during mass shootings. We have so much exposure to these events now, be it in the news and on social media, and we cannot live and raise our children out of fear. Fear breeds more fear and living in a constant state of anxiety takes away the quality of our life.
As a parent, times feel scary. Whether it’s school shootings, online bullying, or social media – it’s endless, and the safety of our kids is the most important thing to us all. We cannot let the monsters win. Part of healing the trauma of our experiences is talking about it.
Talk about it with your partner, your family, and friends. Lean into things you can control – whether advocacy in the community, education, or creating a safe place at home where you can educate your children with age-appropriate materials. That way, they can learn and hear it from you. We don’t want to plan our whole lives and days around these events. We want to control what we can control.
Acceptance around these situations, like mass shootings, feels like surrendering to the bad guys. That’s not what acceptance needs to be. Acceptance does not mean agreeing, liking or submitting to situations in our lives. Acceptance is acknowledging circumstances and not denying our reality so we have a more accurate depiction of what our options are so we can respond in a way that aligns with our value systems. We are not fortune tellers or superheroes, but we are moms, and that role alone is a power unmet by any comic book superhero.
We do what we can. We get informed. We know our options, and we keep moving – for ourselves, our children, and our loved ones.