How Yoga and Mindfulness Can Help Students Exposed to Trauma

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There are many children in our classrooms that would benefit from learning tools to understand, express and manage their emotions. Children who have been affected by trauma are in constant states of hyperarousal and emotional distress. Learning tools to de-escalate, calm and communicate are essential in order to help them function in and out of the classroom. Simply put, a stressed brain simply cannot learn. A traumatized brain has practiced staying in states of fight, flight and freeze so often that these states become their norm. A traumatized brain and body can remain in heightened vigilant states even when there is no real threat present. This continual firing within the protective centers of the brain, impedes all facets of learning and living.

The National Institute of Mental Health (USA) defines childhood trauma as; “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.”

Childhood trauma can be caused by a multitude of circumstances. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (Felliti and Anda, 1998)has been classified ten categories to include:

Abuse of child: emotional, physical, sexual abuse

Trauma in child’s household environment: substance abuse, parental separation and/or divorce, mentally ill or suicidal household member, violence to mother, imprisoned household member

Neglect of child: abandonment, child’s basic physical and/or emotional needs unmet

Children exposed to trauma can experience the same symptoms as a war veteran diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In many respects, this young age of exposure is even more debilitating because it is happening to a brain that is rapidly learning to adapt and wire based on its experiences. In the case of trauma, these experiences threaten their very survival. It creates and internal neurology of continually being in fight and flight mode/reaction.

They are perpetually in a stressed state.

THE SYMPTOMS OF STRESS

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, psychiatrist, researcher and expert on the subject of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) penned the book, The Body Keeps the Score, which aims to demystify the many components of PTSD in children and adults. To help explain the significant impact of trauma on young people, Van der Kolk assigned them the term, “Developmental Trauma Disorder”, with the defining characteristics of:

  • A pervasive pattern of dysregulation
  • Problems with attention and concentration
  • Difficulties getting along with themselves and others
  • Rapid mood swings from temper tantrums, panic and dissociation
  • Inability to express or describe these emotions

Having a biological system that keeps pumping out stress hormones to deal with real or imagined threats leads to physical problems: sleep disturbances, headaches, unexplained pain, over-sensitivity to touch or sound
As Van der Kolk explains it, these are pain-based behaviors that stem from living in a stressful and traumatic environment. Imagine for a moment how you would view yourself and others if you were never given the opportunity to feel calm, safe and loved. It’s for that exact reason that these children lack a sense of support and self-worth that are necessary for positive emotional and mental development. Van der Kolk also explains how trauma does not only manifest in the brain, but it seeps into every cell of the body. Some have said, “Our issues (conscious and unconscious memory of trauma) are in our tissues (the tissues throughout our body).

THE SCIENCE OF YOGA

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that demonstrates the ways in which yoga poses, breathing techniques and mindfulness provide enormous benefits to children. It helps to dramatically reduce violence or aggression, reduces maladaptive behaviors like, noncompliance, social withdrawal and hyperactivity, and most notably, decreases stress and increases self-control.

Yoga provides two very important things: emotional nourishment and physical fitness.

Here are the ways that the three most significant components of a yoga practice can help support a trauma-affected child.

BREATH

Studies show that changing the pattern of our breathing is probably the fastest way to jumpstart the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is the part of the nervous system that promotes feelings of peace and calm. Slow and steady breathing (about 3-6 breaths per minute for most adults) is also proven to increase the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin plays a role in supporting social interactions and bonding. It helps you to feel safe in social situations. It also aids in the secretion of GABA which is responsible for feel-good endorphins and sometimes referred to as the “anti-anxiety molecule.”

Overall, teaching overstimulated and dysregulated children how to utilise their breath to transform negative emotions into positive ones is a powerful tool. This shows them how to calm their nervous system, self-regulate and organize their mind and body.

MOVEMENT

The body has two major stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline that speed up the heart and pull you into a fight, flight or freeze response. Here, the primitive brain is highly engaged and the prefrontal cortex (the more logical, decision-making part of your brain) is sabotaged and off line.

Movement helps to metabolize those stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, that are continually being produced in the body and mind of a traumatized individual. John J Ratey, MD, Harvard Medical School says in Carla Hannaford’s book, Smart Moves, that “exercise is really for the brain, not the body. It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being”. Doing yoga poses is a tangible activity for children that helps them engage with their mind, body and emotional state through movement in a positive way.

Movement through yoga is a method of opening the body and releasing the “issues that remain in the tissues.”

MINDFULNESS

The purpose of mindfulness is to cultivate an awareness of your whole self. By asking children to quietly observe their internal thoughts, physical sensations and especially their emotions, it offers them the opportunity to make powerful choices and let them decide how they’d like to engage with those things.

One of the most impactful experiences that mindfulness can give a trauma-affected child is the power to understand and befriend their emotions along with the physical sensations that arise with difficult emotions. It cultivates their personal awareness and strengthens their capacity to shift their internal state, especially when bombarded by fear, stress and overwhelm. Ultimately, a regular practice of mindfulness can restore a sense of empowerment, emotional resilience and growth that will last a lifetime.

Interested in helping your students learn how to use breath, movement and mindfulness, within your classrooms? Click here for more information. Our programs offer short, impactful practices that are easily integrated into the school day. For children who are suffering from trauma, these practices are therapeutic as they calm and reset the nervous system.

Additional Resources and References:

The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel Van der Kolk

Smart Moves – Carla Hannaford

Reprogram with Healthy Habits and Warm Fuzzies: Trumping Addictions and Compulsions via Huffington Post