Being a teacher is stressful. You’re asked to teach, hold compassionate space for your students, and navigate the swirl of social and political contexts that emerge in your classroom every day. Any person under this amount of recurring stress, or during an unexpected crisis, is capable of developing trauma.
Above all else, we recommend seeking community and professional care to tend to your mental health. This post is meant to act as a stepping stone towards needed care for teachers who think they may have trauma.
What is trauma?
Dr. Peter Levine, Ph.D., defines trauma as “…not what happens to us. But what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”
Any person is capable of developing trauma after a moment of acute stress or repeated moments of chronic stress.
Dr. Levine’s definition is important because it shifts the focus away from the specifics of the event/s, and toward the relational and environmental factors that leave a person vulnerable to developing trauma.
For teachers, this happens at many levels. Your school may be understaffed and you know you can’t ask your other overworked colleagues for support. You may have had to handle a crisis alone, or with another exhausted teacher. The daily experience of juggling too much when you’re running on fumes may be wearing on you.
We often discuss this feeling as burn out. However, when the body is asked to hold stress, and we don’t feel that there are any compassionate or available people to help, we can also develop trauma. Trauma is not an individual’s failure to overcome stress. It is the residual stress of moment/s where we did not feel protected.
This also means that with support, we can weather intense moments or heal in their aftermath. The development of trauma, and recovery from it, are rooted in our environment and relationships with others.
5 Ways To Cope With Traumatic Stress
1. Seek Out a Trauma-informed Therapist
Seeking help is easier said than done. However, knowing what to ask for will help you find a therapist who is a good fit. Most therapists offer a free consultation where you can ask questions. It is ok to shop around for a therapist and find one who makes you feel safe and has the skills you need.
You may be able to access therapy through your district’s employee assistance program.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What do you specialize in treating?
- Is your practice trauma informed?
- What modalities do you use to treat trauma?
2. Self Care
Self care is a common refrain in conversations around mental health. For many teachers your day revolves around caring for others. If you find yourself prioritizing the care of others over your own, you may need to practice self care.
Knowing how to care for yourself is important. Self care–especially when practiced mindfully, can be a great tool to heal trauma. The crux of trauma is that your body is holding on to an old fear. Our bodies don’t communicate with language; they speak with the senses. We can speak to our bodies through our senses to let them know the dangerous moment has passed.
Think back on a time you found especially content and identify what made that moment special. If there are ways you can recreate it for yourself, do so. Intentionally craft your selfcare moments, and notice what feels good about them. This does not need to be elaborate. This might look like running your hands over a soft blanket, savoring your favorite food, or listening to a song you love.
3. Community Care
For many teachers, prioritizing the needs of others makes you a strong and empathetic educator. You may find yourself struggling to let others know how you are doing because you are accustomed to being a caregiver.
One skill you can practice is identifying what you want from others, and being specific when you ask for it. Your loved ones can’t read your mind, and may want to help but need some guidance.
This can look like asking for a conversation on the couch where your partner listens thoughtfully but doesn’t try to problem solve (they couldn’t fix the education system if they wanted!). Maybe you want a friend to make you a meal and spend an evening with you.
Specificity can be a gift. Ask for what you want. Moments of connection remind us we are cared for, and that our loved ones are here for us when we need them.
4. Balance Between Self Care and Community Care
Many people, and especially those of us with trauma, may find ourselves leaning on one form of care more than the other.
Self care helps you practice self regulation. This is your ability to process your experiences, emotions, and ground within yourself. It is a crucial skill and allows us to soothe when we are alone and connect with others compassionately.
Community care helps you practice coregulation. Coregulation describes how one or more people’s behavior, tone, volume, body language, etc influence one another during a connection. An example of this looks like confiding in your partner when you are upset. They maintain their composure and hold your hand, which helps you feel grounded while you process an intense feeling.
Both self and coregulation are important ways of safely connecting with ourselves and others while we heal from trauma. If you feel isolated and alone, you may need to practice reaching out to your community. If you find yourself always turning to others to calm you down and don’t know how to be alone with yourself, you may need to practice self regulation.
A therapist can guide you through strategies to practice these skills. You can also practice these skills by processing in a journal and setting goals to practice these skills. There is no shame in needing to practice a skill.
In Stephen Porges, PhD.’s Polyvagal Theory, there are three kinds of nervous system responses to stressors. In short, they are fight/flight/freeze. When we develop trauma, it is easier for us to slip into these states.
Movement can be a good way of releasing the kinetic energy built up when we feel panicked or frozen. Depending on where you are and how you’re feeling, this can be as simple as wiggling your toes to get “unstuck” or going for a run.
The important part isn’t what you do, as much as you allow that energy to move through and out of your body. This can help communicate to your body that you are not trapped and can “fight” or “leave” the stressor upsetting you. In the moment, you may not have control over the stressor, but you can work with the energy in your body to avoid getting emotionally stuck.
Reading List and Next Steps
We highly recommend working with a trauma-informed practitioner or community healer who makes you feel safe while addressing trauma. This person can be a sounding board for your thoughts and guide you through practices to alleviate your distress.
If you are interested in learning more about the concepts in this post, here is a brief reading list.
- “A Year of Mindfulness: A 52-Week Guided Journal to Cultivate Peace and Presence” by Jennifer Ray
- “The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe” by Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
- “In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness” by Peter Levine, Ph.D.
- “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD
- “Widen the Window: Training your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma” by Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D.