by Gloria Rhodes
This week I participated in STAR, or Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience, a workshop offered by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU). I was familiar with STAR, and I was eager to learn more about trauma and its physical, emotional, and spiritual effects and its linkages to violence.
I am familiar with STAR because I also teach at EMU. And while teaching is fulfilling to me, my subject matter is intense, and sometimes even painful. I teach about conflict, violence and injustice. I also teach about how to build peace, and the great capacity that humans have to love and do good in the world. However, like social workers, police officers, humanitarian assistance workers, fire fighters, military personnel, and others, my occupation of teaching about conflict and violence forces me to look directly at human suffering caused by human cruelty. My subject area exposes me and my students to realities that produce strong feelings that are often difficult to process.
Over time, I've become sensitive to these stories of human suffering. I have begun to avoid TV journalism, movies, and anything I fear will contain more violence. Witnessing violence in videos I use in classes, for example, has begun to affect me in the same way that witnessing violence or trauma first-hand affects any of us--through physical responses in the body. The physical response I feel in the pit of my stomach when I encounter more suffering is a trauma response--even when caused by indirect or vicarious experiences of trauma.
The traumas we experience are different for everyone. For some, a life-threatening illness, the loss of someone close, or a dangerous situation can cause trauma, but what causes trauma is different for each of us, and for some of us, the trauma may even be caused by something that others might see as trivial. But the physical response is real. It is the body's response to being overwhelmed.
However we experience trauma, whether directly or vicariously, our body attempts to respond by preparing us to physically deal with the threat. These physiological responses prepare us to fight, to run (flight), and sometimes to freeze. When freezing happens, the trauma energy gets trapped in our bodies and we may use that energy to act in (in self-damaging ways--risky behaviors, alcohol, drugs, depression, cutting) or to act out (through violence against others--child abuse, aggressive behavior, direct physical violence, and emotional violence). These cycles of violence against self and others are prevalent in our society, and examples can be found at personal, community, national, and international levels. But, these cycles can be broken, and it was my interest in learning more about breaking cycles of violence and learning strategies for trauma resilience that lead me to STAR.
The personal traumas shared about in class were difficult to hear. Some were so painful that we shared only silence and tears. In my unfamiliar role as student, sitting at a table, I found it difficult to still my body and I sought acceptable ways to deal with the trauma energy. I used the play dough, coloring sheets and colored pencils provided by the STAR facilitators, and I enjoyed the massage and yoga options provided, but I was still distracted and tense.
Finally on day three, I started drawing. I drew and drew and drew. By the end of the week, I realized that most of my drawings were from nature…a tree branch, a bowl of fruit, flowers of every shape and size. But, all week, most of all, I had been drawing trees--branches, leaves of many colors and shapes, different types of trees, and finally a tree with a gnarled knot in the center, a memory of a tree that stands in my backyard. Ten years ago we had caused it trauma by cutting off a very large branch (about 18" in diameter) and it has been very slowly growing over the damage. Today when I looked at the tree, I realized the scar had shrunk to only several inches across. The tree has remained healthy on the outside while bearing and healing that injury.
Just like my own traumas and the experiences of trauma of each of the participants in our classroom, the tree in my yard has been repairing the injury. And though the tree has been resilient, healing has taken time. The hopeful message of STAR is that like trees, humans are resilient too, and we can learn strategies that help our bodies through the healing process and out of the cycles of violence in which we get trapped.
For me, the process of going through STAR, crying with others, telling my story and drawing trees has helped moved me further along my own path to healing. I'm still avoiding TV, but I've been able to talk about some of my past traumas without the familiar physical responses (a sign that the trauma energy has been sufficiently processed to pass on out of my body). And I'm at peace as I think about teaching again in the fall.
Gloria Rhodes chairs the department of Applied Social Sciences at Eastern Mennonite University where she coordinates the Peacebuilding and Development undergraduate major. She teaches introductory and advanced peacebuilding and conflict studies theory, mediation, group dynamics and facilitation, and conflict analysis. She teaches regularly in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU. Gloria has led semester and summer cross-cultural programs in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Russia. When not teaching, she loves gardening, cooking and playing with her two children with whom she regularly colors, draws, and paints.