The words “trauma-informed” and “trauma-informed practice” have become “common parlance” (used a lot in the last ten years) in mental health and education . In many respects, these terms have become “an example of misappropriation and buzzword manipulation” (quote from a colleague in restorative justice work) resulting in significant concerns regarding the efficacy of care and treatment provided for our most vulnerable and often marginalized individuals and groups. Although semantically pleasing, “trauma-informed” and “trauma-informed practice” in reality, highlights the shortage of trauma-informed practitioners and how this limited capacity impacts kids and families in very real ways. Significant harm to family systems, individual, and community well-being can be observed and is perpetuated when what is touted as “trauma-informed” or “trauma-informed care” misses the mark or is misrepresented as being “trauma-informed”. When practice strategies and actions are experienced in a way which perpetuates and increase the traumatic stressors and dysregulation, children, families, and communities are not served.
Trauma can be experienced as a significant event or as chronic and overwhelming stress that cannot be successfully resolved (see ACE’s Study). When traumatic stress is unresolved, such as someone actively experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV), an individual experiences either a state of hyper- or hypo-arousal. Hyper-arousal is associated with what is commonly understood as a “fight/flight” response. Hypo-arousal is associated with what is commonly understood as a “freeze” response (shutdown, collapse, immobilize).
The fight/flight and freeze responses are autonomic nervous system functions (ANS). The ANS, is located at the base of the brain at the back of the skull is traditionally understood as the body’s threat/survival response center. “Neuroception” , as defined by Dr. Stephen Porges and the Polyvagal Theory, is described as a “sub-cortical” bodily process (not involving the thinking brain) in which our ANS constantly scans for signs of danger or safety. When our ANS detects a real or perceived threat, the body responds in a manner to preserve life. The endocrine system produces adrenaline and cortisol necessary to harness the energy to engage in fight/flight responses in order to decrease or eliminate the real or perceived threat. Sometimes our ANS may detect a real or perceived threat but the body engages a “freeze” response, the ANS slows all of the body’s functions as a means of conserving energy to preserve life. It’s important to understand, not all neuroception results in a fight/flight response prior to a freeze response. When trauma or overwhelming chronic stress is experienced as “too much” to handle due to our fight/flight response being ineffective in resolving the real or perceived threat, our body’s response may be to shut down. This experience is often described as feelings of anxiety and/or depression resulting in descriptions of being unable to move, feeling emotionally paralyzed or immobilized. This is a common response to overwhelming, chronic stress on the body/emotions. So “trauma-informed” means understanding how experiences of trauma or overwhelming chronic stress causes dysregulation in the ANS/body due to hyper or hypo arousal. This dysregulation is observed or experienced as agitation, activated, and an inability to calm down or feel safe for someone experiencing hyper arousal (fight/flight activation). For someone experiencing hypo arousal, a shutdown, collapsed, immobilized response is usually experienced or observed. Both of these states can be classified as dysregulation as a direct result of the current, ongoing, or unresolved traumatic stress.
Resiliency-informed practices, strategies, and self-care means understanding how to engage in pragmatic strategies which move oneself, an individual, or a group toward regulation and away from dysregulation to autonomic nervous system balance or what I refer to as “Zero Sum Homeostasis” (more later on ZSH).
So what sorts of strategies or actions promote ANS balance and flexibility? Activities which are calming, nature-based, and engage neuroplasticity, or activities which are intentionally focused, experiential, redundant, novel, visceral, meaningful, consistent, and require action are reported to increase the synaptic strength of neuronal connections (“neurons that fire together, wire together”) and to increase the myelination of the ventral branch of the Vagus Nerve. Increasing synaptic strength and myelination of the ventral branch of the Vagus Nerve increases our sense of safety and well-being and decreases symptom manifestations of anxiety and depression (Siegel 2011, 2012; Porges 2011, 2017, 2018; Rosenberg 2017; Dana 2018, 2020; Van der Kolk, 2014; Levine 1997, Ogden 2018).
DIRT GROUP is a resiliency and trauma-informed children’s mental health application rooted in social and emotional learning in the context of a gardening, farming, foods, and creative arts project provided in an experientially rich milieu which provides meaningful activities which provide participants the opportunity to learn, practice, and master important interpersonal skills which prepare them for life. Tangible results in the forms of fruits, vegetables, written and spoken word, audio, video, and visual arts as well as increased social competencies act as a conduit for civic engagement and social justice youth work. Making a difference in their families, schools, and communities through contributions to the greater good and being part of something bigger than themselves provides meaningful opportunities to experience social inclusion and the importance of human relationships at a time in our history where social isolation has inhibited social engagement for many. The activities in which we teach and engage youth in, facilitate the development of social competencies which translate to emotional and behavioral regulation/social and emotional intelligence.
Applied Theory in Practice:
The DIRT GROUP Paradigm rooted in social justice, and grounded and informed by the Polyvagal Theory, Experiential Learning Theory, Symbolic Interactionism, Positive Youth Development, Stress Reduction Theory, Attention Restoration Theory and engages a Strength-Based perspective.
DIRT GROUP WORLD: The Role-Play-Game (RPG)
The inaugural campaign for DIRT GROUP WORLD, a new virtual and in-person Role-Play-Game (RPG) based in the DIRT GROUP Paradigm will begin June 1st, 2021 with “The 5P’s” or The Post-Pandemic Pizza Party Project, in response to the pivot to telehealth, increasing virtual spaces, social isolation and the increase in mental health concerns among children and adults due to the COVID-19 global pandemic (long-term emergency).
Our inaugural campaign will begin June 1, 2021 and culminate with the In Real Life (IRL) and virtual Post-Pandemic Pizza Party on September 25, 2021!! In an effort to provide meaningful opportunities for social engagement, social and emotional learning, and social justice youth work, the 5P’s will engage participants twice each week in the RPG DIRT GROUP WORLD. One session will be virtual and one session will be in person as safety protocols allow. During each session, participants will engage with the DGW Storyteller and practitioner(s) to do character development, learn about tasks and adventures related to the DIRT GROUP Paradigm for the day and to learn about tasks and adventures they can and should engage in between the group sessions. We will be growing all of the ingredients necessary to make pizza sauce including thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, summer savory, parsley, and sweet marjoram. San Murzano Roma tomatoes, 20 additional heirloom tomato varieties, 20 varieties of peppers, 5 varieties of onions and an adult survivors group is growing the garlic. We will be building an outdoor pizza oven, donating to assisted living centers, food shelves, and families providing the opportunity to make a difference in others lives. Participants will learn how to make sourdough pizza crusts and to harvest, process, and preserve all of the items in canning and labeling our own pizza sauce. Additional adventures and surprises await as we learn, practice, and master important life skills and look forward together with hope in health and social justice.