Teen + Trauma
It's not easy being a teenager. In the best of circumstances, adolescents and teens struggle with a changing body, emotional upheaval and a need to connect with their peers. It's an inherent part of their developmental cycle and not-a-one-of-us can escape it. We've either been there, we're going through it, we're parenting one or perhaps educating one. It's a blessing and a curse.
Types of Trauma
Now let's add trauma to the mix. I recently completed Trauma-Informed Yoga Training for Youth through Street Yoga. Our teacher, Jessica Gershwin, a certified Yoga Teacher and Family Therapist, explains that, "Trauma is an event, series of events or an endemic or chronic condition that threatens ones survival."
Trauma comes in different forms. It could be acute, episodic and unexpected (PTSD), occur over an extended period of time (i.e., physical abuse sexual assault), vicarious when in regular contact with people who experienced trauma and even inter-generational when a series of traumas is passed down from grandparent to parent to child.
Brain and Trauma
Our brain's role in all of this is essentially to help us survive - to discern between what is dangerous and what is not. In the book, Does Stress Damage the Brain? by J. Douglas Bremner, the author explains that when the brain receives signals that appear life-threatening, chemicals are released in our body that takes us away from non-critical tasks, so we can deal with the threat at hand. Also, our energy is deflected to the brain and muscles that help us think fast, and away from other organs like our stomach, digestive track and even our reproductive system that aren't necessary at the moment.
Our brain saves this hormonal response in it's memory like "cache" on a computer. This way if the stimuli that caused this reaction reappears, the brain is ready to take action. It remembers it. World-renowned trauma specialist and author of, The Body Keep Score: Brain, Mind & Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk says, "In the long term the largest problem of being traumatized is that it’s hard to feel that anything that’s going on around you really matters. It is difficult to love and take care of people and get involved in pleasure and engagements because your brain has been re-organized to deal with danger." (van der Kolk, 2014)
Mindfulness and Trauma
Try being a trauma survivor and sitting in a classroom expected to learn. It is a challenge, to say the least, to thrive when they are just trying to survive.
30+ years of research shows that mindfulness practices such as Yoga, meditation and conscious breathing, helps to bring awareness to the present moment and improve attention, emotional regulation, compassion and calming. It literally changes your brain! (MindfulSchools.org)
The brain has plasticity, so it is able to rewire itself. Mindfulness can help the traumatic brain change it's "wiring" and make new connections that can serve the survivor in a positive way.
Mindfulness with Care
So, mindfulness practices are proven to be good for reducing stress - taming the beast, so to speak. But, if you are using mindfulness practices to help someone with trauma, it's vitally important that you proceed with great care. Words and actions that might seem benign to someone else could set off triggers with someone who has experienced trauma.
And let's face it - who among us hasn't experienced some sort of trauma? Who among us doesn't have triggers that could set us off? In our Mindfulness for Teens Teacher Training, we ask our students to share a positive and negative experience from their teenage years. In almost every case, there is something that caused them pain and grief that they carry with them today - experiences that affect their every day choices and relationships.
Empowering Trauma Survivors
My Trauma-Informed Yoga Training for Youth taught me how important it is to empower the kids we're teaching to make choices that serve them. We don't try and fix the trauma. After all, I'm not a therapist. That is out of my scope of practice. But we can use words and provide guidance that will help to earn their trust by setting boundaries and creating a safe environment where we are not demanding anything of them. We are simply "inviting" them to join us.
This method of teaching Yoga and mindfulness can actually apply to anyone in any environment, because we never know from looking at someone what kind of trauma they hold in their hearts, bodies and minds.
Here are some words, phrases and actions to consider whether you're teaching yoga, teaching in a classroom, working with at-risk youth or even as a parent:
"I invite you to join me..." (on the mat, the dinner table, opening a textbook)
"When you're ready..." (join me in Downward Facing Dog, to talk)
"You might want to try this" (as opposed to "do this")
Give more than one choice and allow the child to decide which is best for him/her
In a Yoga class or at a desk in school, have the student walk around the edge of the mat or around the desk and let them know that is their space and no one elses at that moment.
For parents, understand that adolescents and teens must begin their journey of separating from you. It's part of a healthy development. Allow them time alone in their rooms. They need to decompress from the stress and feel that they have their own space where they can process and manage their emotions.
Phyllis Smith is the Co-Founder and CEO of Live Free Yoga where they teach mindful practices to teens and those who serve them to create strong minds, brave hearts, wise bodies and noble spirits.