Tackling trauma, teaching resiliency
- Published: March 28, 2022
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 reached out to Jennifer Whitacre, a certified trainer of 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.
“How we’re raised has a lot to do with the health that we experience over our lifetime across the board, whether it’s mental, spiritual, emotional, physical.” — Jennifer Whitacre
This article is a follow up to the Feb. 25 News story, “Learning the nature of trauma,” in which 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.”
Whitacre is a trauma specialist, not a psychologist, distinguishing what she does through the relational therapeutic model in which she was trained, a top-down cognitive analysis that focuses on adjusting behavior through the mind. In recent public comments she made on social media that she has given the News permission to share, Whitacre — whose training also includes massage therapy — said that while the top-down approach is effective for a lot of people, “I’m trained in the opposite approach, which is the relational model, bottom-up approach. The relational model brings everything back to the body, not the mind. What that means is that I work with the physiology of trauma, not the psychology of it.”
Whitacre also has training in the Trauma Resiliency Model, Internal Family Systems and Compassionate Inquiry. She has certification as a Somatic Experiencing, or SEP and Community Resiliency Model, or CRM, practitioner.
Compassionate Inquiry is a psychotherapeutic approach developed by Dr. Gabor Maté, whose background includes experience in family and palliative care and treating patients struggling with mental illness and addiction. Whitacre’s focus is reducing the effects of generational, collective, cultural and developmental trauma on individuals and communities. She said she utilizes Maté’s definition of trauma — that “trauma is not what happens to you, it’s not about the event.”
According to Whitacre, trauma is what happens inside of you. Because of what happens to you, that trauma dysregulates the nervous system. “When our nervous system is dysregulated, then we get into reactive patterns that play out over and over — it’s like a hamster wheel,” she explained.
Whitacre believes that the relational model is most effective in helping people who’ve experienced complex trauma, saying that complex trauma is an insidious form of trauma that stems from living with adversity.
“It’s toxic patterns that are part of daily life, and they’re often hidden in plain sight because they’re normalized. What’s normalized isn’t easily recognizable as toxic or unhealthy. The proverbial frog in the pot is a great analogy for complex trauma. We oftentimes don’t realize we’re in trouble until we’re boiling,” she wrote.
The health effects of complex trauma can wreak havoc on multiple body functions including the nervous, immune, endocrine, digestive, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Whitacre aims to help her clients regain mind-body-emotional-spiritual synergy, which she says is a skill that can be learned if people put in a little work in the beginning of the process. According to Whitacre, being in alignment will help people reduce the effects of anxiety and anger.
Whitacre’s own quest for personal healing from the effects of complex trauma brought her to the relational model approach. Whitacre grew up in a small town in southeastern Ohio that she says has some similar dynamics as Yellow Springs and other small communities.
“It was normalized in the community where I grew up for people to be up in everybody’s business all the time, for the neighbors to talk about everybody else, and to just spread their opinions.”
Whitacre said her family did not openly discuss mental health issues.
“If I would reach out to somebody in my community, somebody that I thought I could trust, because that gossip was so normalized, it would get back to my parents. And like, you don’t share things outside the home, you don’t share things like that: What happens in this house stays in this house. So, I started taking trainings to learn about trauma because I didn’t have support.”
Whitacre said that the trauma she experienced in childhood made it hard for her to seek help and reinforced her belief that she had to do things all by herself.
“Some of my trauma responses and coping mechanisms, like hyper independence, keeping a distance from connecting too closely with anybody, not reaching out, resistance to asking for help, [is] ultimately what led me into my trauma trainings. I ended my quest to be my own support.”
Whitacre decided to use her healing experience to help others.
“It was a combination of life experience, self-application, formal education and formal trainings that allowed me to take my experience, my knowledge, and everything that I know, and help other people through situations that they might be struggling with.”
Whitacre said that, although humans are hard-wired through DNA to deal with threats, resiliency teaches people to be able to enjoy some quality moments in life.
“[Humans] catastrophize and that’s biological, it’s part of our survival. It’s literally hardwired into our DNA because if we look around our environment and we miss a threat, that could be the end of our life. 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. And so, it takes more work to enjoy those little moments and not be on autopilot, where we’re always looking for a threat and where we’re always on guard.”
Physiology of trauma, education and awareness
“We have this baseline of rest and digest, and we can really get accustomed to a baseline of here, instead of down here [Whitacre gestured with her hands to indicate increased anxiety]. We should be getting to that question, ‘At what point can a body relax?’”
Whitacre said human bodies build tolerance to stress and get used to it being at elevated levels. She believes that education about trauma should begin before there is a crisis.
“This is what is called global high intensity activation, which means our resting state just never comes all the way down. So, we’ve constantly got some level of stress hormones in our body that impedes our ability to learn. What doesn’t happen in our society is education prior to a situation coming to light. Whenever the situation comes to light, then everybody talks about education, but that’s not the right time. People avoid educating themselves about what to look for, so the average person does not know the symptoms of trauma and what to look for, because the symptoms of trauma are quite normalized.”
According to Whitacre, symptoms of complex trauma can begin in childhood and persist into young adulthood.
“Complex trauma is the little things that we live with day in and day out. The more you hear that you’re stupid, like, ‘Why didn’t you do better at school? Your sister got better grades than you,’ and it’s not the actual words the parents are saying, but the constant comparison. ‘Oh, you got an A-minus? Why not an A?’ It’s that constant. Little things like that over and over lead 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. I’m not pretty enough. Just like some mothers hyper focusing on their daughters, ‘Oh, look at your teeth. You’re going to need braces if you want to be pretty enough. You’re going to have to wear makeup.’ Little subtle messages get under the skin in childhood, whenever those messages happen, day in and day out.
“It’s important to realize that our brains are not fully developed until our mid to late 20s. For women, they estimate between ages 24–26 and for men, between 25–27 before our brains are fully functioning. So, children don’t have the capacity to look at their situation and go, ‘Wow, my dad doesn’t know how to handle his emotions.’ If he [dad] is dumping this on them, children will always conclude that they’re not good enough. They will adapt to make themselves good enough for their parents. These reactive behaviors are what people overlook and minimize and dismiss. But oftentimes it’s the biggest red flags we see.”
Whitacre cautions that although the information is accessible, many people avoid dealing with trauma by distracting themselves from it through sources of entertainment.
“Because this isn’t taught in school, we don’t learn it. But the information is there if we just go look for it. And it’s possible to go out and learn it, to take classes, to share it. But people would rather distract themselves with something more pleasant, like sitting down and watching the latest sitcom or TV show or movie or video game, whatever is there. But it’s imperative that we all shift from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control. The internal locus of control is the ability and the capacity to look within and see and notice and recognize your own patterns of behavior.”
Whitacre also told the News that laughter is often used as a coping mechanism for complex trauma.
“Laughter itself is the coping mechanism. And if you’re educated about it, then you know the warning signs, because people are uncomfortable with how trauma manifests itself during a full-blown trauma response.
“Look at the character of Kitty Forman in ‘That 70s Show.’ Her nervous laughter — that’s a coping mechanism. 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. I don’t really have to feel the pain of my experience.’
“One of the sayings in comedy is that tragedy plus time equals comedy. A lot of comedians are self-deprecating in an unhealthy way. There’s trauma behind the sarcastic comedian, the angry comedian.”
Whitacre said some comedians are beginning to move away from those tropes.
“At the forefront of my mind is [comedian] Hannah Gadsby, because she has really stepped into comedy, but also processed her own trauma. She doesn’t use self-minimizing anymore. There’s a shift that’s happening in the world of comedy where it doesn’t have to be unresolved trauma that’s being minimized by laughter. But that does happen a lot, and a lot of comedians are also truth tellers. George Carlin, for example, he dropped a lot of truth bombs in his comedy, and it’s uncomfortable to listen to whenever a comedian is really truthful.”
Whitacre explained why it is important for communities to learn to sit with discomfort.
“It’s important for people within the community to develop the skills to be able to sit with the discomfort of somebody else’s story, not take it personally, and not project their own perspective on to somebody else, even if that story involves somebody that everyone knows and has interacted with. Realize that their story might be just as true as your story, even though their story is horrific and involves abuse and yours had none of that. And that involves being able to see that people are multidimensional. This is why we have characters in literature like Jekyll and Hyde — because these dynamics have existed for as long as people have existed.
“People talk more than they listen. And so, it is a skill to develop, stop talking, sit down and listen.”
Trauma and Community Resiliency — CRM
The Trauma and Resiliency Model, or CRM, is described by the Trauma Resource Institute, or TRI, as a “wellness initiative that provides non-judgmental perspective on normal human relations to stress and trauma and encourages people to pass the skills along to their family, friends and wider communities.”
After the Dayton shootings in 2019 in which a gunman killed nine people in the Oregon District — a popular entertainment hub — Elaine Miller-Karas, a trauma specialist and director of the TRI, was brought in by now-retired Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl to facilitate training workshops focused on the healing modalities she developed, including CRM. According to the TRI website, Miller-Karas “has traveled internationally and trained community members, mental health and health professionals in the aftermath of human and natural disasters,” including the 2004 tsunami that struck multiple Asian countries including Thailand and Sri Lanka. Whitacre attended those sessions and discussed the important insights she gained as a result.
“What that experience really drove home for me is to help people pull out the strength-based parts of their story. And that’s something that we all need help with. Because when we go into our stories, we naturally will go into the worst-case scenario, into whatever puts us in the worst light in a story. I could tell a story, I’ve lived through sexual abuse, physical abuse. Putting myself in the light of the victim, what happened to me, all those things are true. But it’s not just about the ‘yes’; it’s about the yes and. So, all these things are true and I found the strength to get through those experiences. I can own my forward momentum, whereas before I couldn’t, I could only own my victimhood. And so that’s an internal shift within the individual. You can’t make people own the strength-based parts of their story, but you can help guide them to it.
“So, for community resilience, what’s going to be important is to talk to the victims in such a way as to ask, ‘What helped you get through that? How did you survive that? When was the moment you knew you survived?’ Because sometimes when people endure a trauma, it can feel like the end of their life. And sometimes our mind intellectually knows we survived, but our body has never had the experience of feeling that we survived. So, the body becomes hypervigilant. That constant, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die, I can’t breathe,’ it’s almost a continual re-experience, and that’s the mind-body disconnection.”
Whitacre also used CRM with car crash victims she’s helped in the past to reconnect the mind to the body. She describes responses from people responding to the prompt, “When did you know you’d survived?”
“The realization [was] ‘I knew I would survive when the first responder put their hand on my shoulder, and I felt touch from another person.’ That’s why touch can be really important.
“But when I say ‘touch,’ I’m talking about safe and consensual touch. Sometimes for somebody who’s been sexually abused, they might not be comfortable with touch from another person. Putting a weighted pillow on their feet, while their feet are on the ground just so they can feel their feet again, so they can see all the ground under their feet, brings awareness that they still have a body and that it might be safe to be in that body, while helping them realize they’re not in that situation anymore.”