On Friday, March 29, the Illinois Tech Student Health and Wellness Center (SHWC) hosted the latest installment of its monthly Us, Them, and You group therapy sessions. The primary medical and psychological health providers for the Illinois Tech community, the staff of the SHWC holds these monthly sessions, usually centered a particular theme, as a means of providing the student body with an open and safe area where they can learn more about their psychological health and the resources available to them. This particular Us, Them, and You session was centered around the concept of psychological trauma, understanding what it is and methods of coping with it.
The Assistant Director of the SHWC, Christine Reh, led this session and began with a discussion on the basic definition of trauma and how research on it has changed over the years. With research on the topic beginning strictly on individuals who have seen combat (such as the recorded historical phenomena of “shell shock” during the world wars), trauma has since gone on to be classified into two different types - Types I and II. Type I Trauma, known as Acute Trauma, is associated with a single traumatic incident, such as an assault, robbery, or rape. Type II trauma, also known as Complex Trauma, is caused by experiencing several traumatic episodes over a long period of time. Oftentimes, these traumatic episodes compound in an ongoing process and contribute to a more fundamental loss of trust in the affected individual.
When describing how trauma leads to more severe mental conditions, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Reh first offered the disclaimer that the exact nature of these processes is a “mystery. We still don’t know exactly why trauma may or may not lead to PTSD,” but she then began to explain the current research on the mental processes associated with trauma and the human response to it. Reh described what is known as the limbic system, the system of nerves and brain networks that control basic emotions and drives. It is from this system that humans get the “fight or flight” response. Just as an animal’s limbic system will lead it to avoid dangerous situations, humans’ limbic systems will lead them to avoid sources of trauma after they occur. However, mental conditions such as PTSD develop when the limbic system becomes overly activated by an overwhelming trauma or by multiple traumas. Reh further explained that because the responses of the limbic system are entirely non-verbal and also automatic in nature, it is oftentimes difficult for the subject to understand their reactions to a given incident or do much to stop or alter it.
Thus, individuals who have experienced trauma will develop what is known as triggers: anything that reminds the individual’s brain of their trauma. Triggers can come in many forms, including people, locations, smells, and just about any other entity that can be detected by the senses. These triggers become tied to the limbic system and lead to non-verbal responses whenever they are sensed. While from a survival sense, triggers make sense as they are designed to lead individuals away from harmful situations, the issue comes into play when they manifest in the form of being overly alert, anxiety, and even depression. Reh then stated that a goal of trauma treatment is to understand that “just because my body is telling me something is wrong, it does not mean that it’s true.” Recognizing when a trigger is affecting the individual and eventually learning to discern whether it is actually identifying a clear threat or not can be seen as one of the end goals of trauma treatment.
Reh then described the cycle of reactions that often lead to PTSD. Intrusive reminders about trauma, such as flashbacks and nightmares, will eventually lead to emotions such as anger, sadness, shame, and being scared. In an attempt to escape or avoid these emotions, the traumatized mind will then turn to thoughts, beliefs, and actions such as suppressing emotions, becoming more aggressive, engaging in self-harming behavior, substance abuse, binging, and social withdrawal. Thus, traumatized individuals may develop issues with safety, trust, power, contact, esteem, competence, and intimacy.
With this base-level understanding of how trauma works, Reh then presented a number of coping mechanisms for individuals who have experienced trauma. Designed to relax the individual and break the automatic response of the limbic system, Reh first described the basic act of diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, which involves breathing deeply through one’s chest and holding each inhale and exhale for an extended period. Reh also suggested whispering soothing phrases to oneself on each exhale, such as “I’m okay,” or “I’m safe.” Although this activity is simple in nature, it focuses one’s concentration elsewhere and can interrupt the limbic system. This can then lead to a cumulative effect wherein the automatic responses of the limbic system eventually become more and more diluted as individuals gains more immediate control of their responses to their triggers. Similarly, Reh also described the process of grounding, done using either a physical object held in one’s hand or by simply focusing on physical objects in the same room. Trauma oftentimes heightens the senses, so grounding activities once again force concentration on something more immediate and tangible. By engaging in activities such as diaphragmatic breathing or grounding, the traumatized individual can eventually learn to control their responses and let their emotions happen without being as heavily affected by them.
The Illinois Tech SHWC can be found on the third floor of the IIT Tower, directly to your left after you step off the elevators. Online appointments for medical and mental health can also be set up online at web.iit.edu/shwc/appointments. The SHWC is open during standard business hours Mondays through Fridays, and from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays. In addition, Reh herself can be reached with additional questions or inquiries at [email protected].