Trauma is defined as “the result of exposure to an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms a person’s coping mechanisms.” (van der Kolk, 1997). When we think of traumatic events, we often think of occurrences such as natural disasters, war, personal assault or violence, accidents, fire, or the death or illness of a close friend or family member. However, there may be other situations which are not considered dangerous or life-threatening but are still traumatizing. These would include any situations that are perceived as abandonment, betrayal, or humiliation, which for students could mean a number of circumstances, such as the loss of a friendship or a breakup with a significant other.
Signs and symptoms of a traumatic reaction often mimic other conditions and may develop immediately, or they may be delayed by weeks, years, or even decades. Likewise, the symptoms for some people may last for only a few days, while others may suffer for weeks, months, or years. There are three hallmarks of a traumatic reaction:
- Hyperarousal—Hyperarousal is what we often refer to as the flight or fight response. Physical symptoms can include fatigue, nausea, muscle tremors, difficulty breathing, elevated blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, chills, and a general feeling of weakness. Thinking may become distorted and concentration impaired, which may result in a noticeable decrease in academic performance. In addition, a student experiencing hyperarousal may appear to be anxious or constantly on edge, and they may have panic attacks or difficulty sleeping.
- Re-experiencing—Often, a person may re-experience the traumatic event, through recurring nightmares, flashbacks and/or intrusive thoughts.
- Numbness/avoidance—Some may also engage in behaviors such as substance abuse, excessive gambling, gaming or sexual activity, in an attempt to numb the disturbance, or they may withdraw socially or avoid activities or places that are associated with the traumatic event.
If you observe a student who you think may be experiencing a traumatic reaction:
- Be supportive and provide reassurance.
- Inform the student that his/her reaction is normal and expected.
- Be ready to listen, in a private setting, if possible.
- Be aware that people who have been traumatized may want to talk about the event repeatedly, or they may not wish to talk about it at all.
- Refer the student to Counseling & Wellness Services (906-487-2538). It is often helpful to call CWS with the student present in your office, or offer to walk the student over to the office to make the initial appointment.
- Try to diagnose or treat the condition.
- Minimize the student’s reaction.
- Assume that the student will effectively work through the issue without treatment.