For those of us who work in the human services field, the word trauma has become a buzz word over the past few years. What is it all about and why is it important?

There is a growing acknowledgment that trauma, if left untreated, can have lifelong consequences. Learning about trauma and what we can do to help children recover from it is critically important if children who have experienced trauma are to heal and thrive. Here is an interview with Nina Marino, former director of foster care and adoption for Lutheran Family Services, who has a broad background in treating childhood trauma.

What is trauma in layman’s terms?
Trauma is a subjective experience that a person has to an event or situation that causes them to feel overwhelmed, powerless or helpless. Trauma affects people on a psychological and physical level. We feel it in the body. It is not just the memory, but it actually becomes a body experience. Your body remembers how you felt in that situation.

An example a lot of people can relate to is how your body “remembers” a bad car accident at an intersection near home. Every time you go through that intersection you remember and feel tense. You might be a little more vigilant, your breathing might change; you might clench the steering wheel. Most of us can identify some example in our lives of an event that was overwhelming or scary and the physical reminders that we experience.

What happens if trauma is left untreated? What is the cost to our society?
There are a host of consequences that can have an impact on people psychologically as well as physically. A lot of research out there links trauma to things like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. There are potentially real physical consequences for untreated trauma. There is also a risk of substance abuse, risk-taking behavior or mental health issues, depression, anxiety.

Untreated trauma can affect people interpersonally; how they relate to others and their ability to have healthy relationships. It can also affect your general world view: Is the world a safe place? Are people generally good or generally bad? It can affect society on a bigger level such as in productivity. The amount of time that people miss work for mental health issues and depression far surpasses that missed for physical illness. The impact on the community can be huge; incarceration, school issues, people may not graduate or go to college. It limits them on a larger level.

Why do people respond in different ways to trauma? Are children more vulnerable?
Because they are developing and less able to control their environment and protect themselves, children are much more vulnerable. We often think just the opposite; that the very young don’t understand what is going on, that they are resilient or won’t remember. The opposite is true; trauma that happens between birth and three can be the most devastating. So many important things are happening – growth and learning, language acquisition, motor skills, connecting, attachment and relationships. All of those things can be impacted by early childhood trauma because that is when attachment is happening.

Children are learning what the world is like. Is it safe? Is it dangerous? Will people take care of me? Or will I be left on my own? These lessons can set the stage for someone’s entire life. When children have to deal with situations that are out of their control or are neglected on a consistent basis they can’t attend to developmental needs. Older kids can talk about it, younger kids can’t. It goes back to that physical experience of trauma and how it can impact children developmentally. It’s important to note that we are talking about chronic trauma or interpersonal trauma. We sometimes refer to this as developmental trauma. Some kids are more naturally resilient and have protective factors that can offset the impact of traumatic situations. Two people can go through the same event at same time and have two different ways of interpreting and internalizing it. Trauma is a subjective experience.

Read part two here.