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May
20
2022
Village Life

Learning the nature of trauma

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Over the past several months, the News has covered several topics that have been at turns controversial, disturbing, painful and divisive for many members of the community. Given the sensitive nature of some of the stories covered, the News recently reached out to Jennifer Whitacare, a certified trainer for the Community Resiliency Model, which teaches people how to address the physiological effects of trauma.

Whitacre is a former resident of Columbus who recently moved to New Mexico. Some of her trauma and resilience training occurred in Yellow Springs. She has familiarity with the community, but does not live in the community — an intentional decision made by the News for reasons of neutrality. An upcoming News article will explore community resiliency healing approaches in more detail.

Trauma and misconceptions

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In a recent interview conducted via Zoom, Whitacre told the News that trauma is often misunderstood.

“A misconception out in the world is that trauma has to do with what’s now called ‘shock trauma’ — that there has to be this overblown event,” she said. “People, decades later, only like to associate trauma or PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome] with veterans in the military who’ve seen combat. Trauma can come from a natural disaster, can come from a car wreck … a single incident.”

Jennifer Whitacre is an empowerment strategist and a a certified trainer for the Community Resiliency Model. (Photo courtesy of http://www.jenniferwhitacre.com)

Whitacre is trained in a psychotherapeutic approach called “compassionate inquiry,” developed by Dr. Gabor Maté, whose background includes experience in family and palliative care and treating patients struggling with mental illness and addiction. Whitacre said she utilizes Dr. Maté’s definition of trauma — that “trauma is not what happens to you, it’s not about the event.”

“Trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you,” she said. “Trauma dysregulates the nervous system, and when our nervous system is dysregulated, then we get into reactive patterns that play out over and over — it’s like a hamster wheel.”

According to Whitacre’s resume, she provides trauma coaching that “addresses the physiological effects of trauma” and focuses on developmental, generational and collective trauma. She is also a certified trainer for the Community Resiliency Model, and helps people learn to self-regulate when experiencing stressful situations through “techniques based in Somatic Experiencing.”
Whitacre said part of understanding trauma is understanding that the body is hardwired for survival.

“If we look around our environment, and we miss a threat, evolution-wise, that could be the end of our life,” she said. “But if we miss a sunset, if we don’t stop and smell the roses, if we don’t take the time to sit down and cuddle and enjoy quality time with people in our lives, we’re not going to die from it, at least not immediately — that’s the slow death overtime from the chronic illness.”
She also said that trauma can take many forms, including complex trauma, which relates to the little things that affect us — particularly comparing ourselves to others or to the expectations others set for us.

“So, the more you hear that you’re stupid — ‘Why didn’t you do better in school? Your sister got better grades than you’ — it’s not the actual words of the parents saying you’re stupid, but the constant comparison,” she said. “Hearing that over and over and over leads to those beliefs inside of us, especially when they happen through childhood. ‘I’m stupid, I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not lovable enough, I’m not pretty enough’ — those little subtle messages get under the skin.”

Education as prevention

Whitacre expanded on the notion that trauma is misunderstood, pointing out that the average person is not familiar with the symptoms of trauma.

“People avoid educating themselves about what to look for … because the symptoms of trauma are really quite normalized,” she said, adding that coping mechanisms, like laughter, are a common symptom.

“If you understand the coping mechanisms that come from trauma, you can see that the laughter itself is the coping mechanism,” she said. “That’s an avoidance tactic, so somehow the humor becomes the buffer, ‘I don’t have to feel this if I can laugh it off.’”

According to Whitacre, it’s important to educate people about trauma and how it affects communities before there is a crisis, because people have difficulty receiving information in the emotional state of a high-stress response.

“I would begin education right now, before you’re in the middle of the situation,” she said. “Getting education to land on people is going to be really difficult [when] emotions are high and when somebody is in an emotional state indicative of a fight or flight response or sympathetic activation within the body. Learning is not going to land when somebody is under stress or when they’re sympathetically activated.”

As an example, Whitacre pointed to children who live in high-stress situations, particularly those subjected to different forms of abuse, and who often struggle with their grades in school as a result.

“Because their body is always in this constant state of fight or flight and the learning just doesn’t wait, learning takes time, and it takes patience,” she said. “If you’re in a situation where your body is perceiving a threat, and you have that urge to fight or flee, then your physiology is not supporting your core, it’s not supporting your digestion, it’s not supporting your brain processes.

All of your physiology is in your muscles, in your limbs, getting ready to escape the situation you’re in.”

Whitacre also said that people can build up a tolerance for trauma over time, developing a higher baseline of “rest and digest,” in which their bodies never return fully to a state of relaxation.

“It’s like building up tolerance to a substance our body can get used to,” she said. “We’ve constantly got some level of stress hormones pumping through our body, and that impedes our ability to learn.”

Whitacre said she came into a greater understanding of how trauma affects lives through her own personal experience when she took the 10-quesetion Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, test. In that test, a point is given for every “yes” response to a question, and the more “yes” points received, the more likely that symptoms of trauma, and even chronic illnesses, were evident in adulthood.

“Physical symptoms like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, or mental health problems, like PTSD, bipolar borderline personality disorder, things like that. You’re more likely to develop those things the higher your numbers are; it even feeds into cancers. How we were raised has a lot to do with the health that we experience over a lifetime, across the board, whether it’s mental, spiritual, emotional, physical,” Whitacre said.

She added that those who developed the ACE test are considering expanding it to include questions related to natural disasters and become more inclusive of experiences that are particular to Black, Indigenous, People of Color, or BIPOC, communities.

“What if a tornado takes out your home? BIPOC people were left off, so there wasn’t a lot in there about microaggressions, and you know, racial disparities and things like that,” Whitacre said.

Whitacre said that a tactic a therapist/practitioner sometimes uses to help people get through their traumas is to ask about a person who supported them emotionally when they were children.

“I didn’t have support,” she said.

Whitacre grew up in a rural community in southeastern Ohio that, according to her, has similar social dynamics to Yellow Springs.

“I lived in a small, gossipy community, and it was normalized in the community where I grew up for people to be up in everybody’s business all the time. It was normalized for the neighbors to talk about everybody else, and to spread their opinions. It was a lot like the drive-in scene in the movie ‘Grease,’ where you know, a rumor gets back to the car from the bathroom before she does,” Whitacre said, referencing a scene in the movie involving pregnancy rumors about one of the main characters.

Whitacre said that her situation was so extreme, she couldn’t reach out to her grandparents.

“I would reach out to somebody in my community, somebody that I thought I could trust, but because that gossip was so normalized, it would get back to my parents and then there would be hell to pay,” she said.

Lacking support in childhood, Whitacre said she started taking training to be her own support, to learn about trauma, and to move away from some of her trauma responses learned as a child.

“My trauma responses are being hyper independent, keeping a distance from connecting too closely with anybody, not reaching out, the belief that I had to do it all myself, and the resistance to asking for help,” she said.

Many people, like Whitacre, learn about trauma outside of traditional educational settings.

“[Trauma informed] education isn’t taught in school, but the information is there if you just go look for it,” she said.

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7 Responses to “Learning the nature of trauma”

  1. As Good As it Gets says:

    Oh, thank you! I would follow your advice if I were still interested in working with a therapist at all; but, at this point in my life–after many years and delving into various modalities, I can honestly say, enough is enough. I’ve worked through issues in spite of setbacks from ‘therapy’ which included assault and the loss of a licensee of said practitioner. I’m older now; I like me today; and those who stand at the ready with their DSMs and timers to diagnose and gauge 30 minute hours–well, I’d say something equivalent to what was recently spewed at a Russian warship. I’m not looking for “professional” help; sometimes time and self are truly enough.

  2. Jennifer Whitacre says:

    I really appreciate the comments here. It’s a valid point and a real issue that many therapists are ‘book learned’ without personal experience. About 20 years ago, I was re-traumatized by such a therapist. For PTSD, and especially complex PTSD, I would agree that it’s best to work with someone who has a combination of personal experience, formal education, and ongoing professional development. Don’t be afraid to ask a practitioner questions, almost like a job interview, before agreeing to work with them. If you glean any red flags or don’t feel a sense of safety and rapport with the practitioner, keep searching. Not all practitioners are cut from the same cloth, and there are some truly gifted ones out there.
    To address body memory and the physiology of trauma, look for practitioners who are trained in the relational model and somatic approaches. The behavioral model can sometimes backfire with PTSD and cPTSD.
    I appreciate your comment, Cheryl, that we still have to find our way in life despite injustice. Moving forward takes courage, and that’s necessary for healing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I would think anyone interested in PTSD and how it impacts those who are diagnosed or yet to be diagnosed may have exercised more cautionary discretion with some of the content within the recent article on the area physician scandal as many readers who don’t understand the whole situation may find those explicit details fodder for gossip and ridicule. Reading a legal complaint is one thing, but writing up details the way the news did reeks of capitalizing on victim distress to sell papers. I was sorry to see that. I doubt you print this opinion as only comments that meet the paper’s needs are printed. That discriminatory selective process is a good reason to eliminate the comment section as other paper’s have done. Good luck.

  4. BJ says:

    What a timely topic!

    One good resource of information for self education on the topic I’ve found is “The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook” by Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D. (can be found new and used online or perhaps the local book store could carry it).

    “Finding Your Best Self: Recovery from Addiction, Trauma, or Both” by Lisa M. Najavits, PhD

    Also, ACA World Services Organization has recently released a workbook on re-parenting yourself “The Loving Parent Guidebook” which is designed “to be worked through with fellow travelers , sponsor, therapist, or private ACA study group or public meeting, not to be read straight through or in isolation.” Perhaps YS has meetings(?) (There are also anonymous podcasts from some chapters online.)

    “The Courage to Heal” by Bass and Davis is still recommended for specific traumas, but it may be better used as a supplement to work with a therapist.

    There are also a number of informative books addressing specific labels. Sometimes the ascribed label seems to dissipate when core issues are dealt with, especially where abuse, drugs and alcohol are concerned. When people self treat, with drugs/alcohol, or other addictions the “self-medication” becomes a problem of its own delaying progress in formatting a fuller, whole, richer life. The 1980’s dealt with many of these issues and some classics are still useful. People still experience the same problems; available resources of discovery; books, coping techniques, new facilitators of change always emerge to address our current societal dynamics. Good luck with your research. There’s lots out there! ✌
    Blessings! Don’t forget to play!

  5. Dump Truck says:

    Thank you. True. But for every therapist who has PTSD, there are a multitude who are simply sympathetic ‘book learned’ authorities. I’ve experienced the worst of opportunists when it came to getting help. Insult to injury ~ more trauma. Guess, It has made me biased against proclaimed helpful professionals.
    I prefer the self learning module myself; there are many books written on trauma and all its physiological aspects including body memories.

    I like to just get through the days peacefully; ’empowerment’ is for Superman.

    I am glad to hear you found her techniques helpful. Communities in general could be better educated on the topic. Thanks again.

  6. Cheryl Durgans says:

    No offense taken. And I agree that people find their own way towards healing. However, I’d also like to caution you against making assumptions. She has PTSD too, but found a way to resolve some of her own severe PTSD issues through a process of healing that may not be for everyone.I am also freely open with my own challenges with PTSD, and have found some of the modalities she discussed in the article life changing. Unfortunately, sometimes the people who have inflicted harm on others will not be held accountable at all, and we still have to find our way in life despite the injustice. Thank you for your comment.

  7. Dump Truck says:

    No offense, but, often it is frightfully annoying for people who actually have PTSD to read articles by others who profess to be experts on the subject. True, they have tidbits of helpfulness, but in the end, people find their own way to live with damage done as there really is no guaranteed method to absolve trauma once it has occurred. That’s one reason it is so important to have preventive measures and “at risk” programs. That can be more beneficial long term than hours, days, weeks, years, lifetimes of remedies once your whole system has turned chaotic. That said, sometimes it is about the trauma, too, as some acts are crimes and those inflicting them should certainly be held accountable.

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