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Navigating conversations about trauma

Opening up the dialogue may be daunting, but the potential benefits can be life-changing

April Trauma

Whether we realize it or not, it’s likely that almost everyone we know – including ourselves – has experienced some sort of trauma that has shaped who they are today. Kirstyn Walker, Assistant Director of Clinical Training and Development at Burrell Behavioral Health, says trauma can be events or sets of circumstances that may be physically or emotionally harmful. According to Walker, those events may even be life-threatening. She says trauma may not be something that we think about every day, or it may be something that we can’t stop thinking about. Regardless, trauma has lasting effects on our overall well-being.

We’re all different, and so are the ways we process events and experiences. Walker says the same circumstance that might be considered traumatic for one person could be considered adversity for another.

Trauma doesn’t just make us uncomfortable. Walker says it actually affects the structure and the function of our brains. These experiences can make our brains more reactive and hyper-alert, leading us to feel threatened when there is no danger actually present. She says excessive stress can delay our brains’ development, which can affect our impulse control.

As our brains react to our experiences, we may show differing signs of the trauma we’ve encountered. Walker explains we may be able to tell that we or our loved ones have experienced trauma through symptoms such as confusion, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering, anxiety, hypervigilance, feelings of hopelessness, exaggerated startle response, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and so on.

When we notice that the people we care about are showing some of these signs, we are allowed to be compassionately curious. Walker encourages asking, “What are you going through?” or “What happened to you?” instead of “What’s wrong with you?” If someone does open up to you about the trauma they’ve experienced, she says we can all do the following:

  • Validate their feelings and experiences
  • Listen nonjudgmentally
  • Practice empathy and compassion
  • Don't take trauma responses personally
  • Regulate our own responses (if we don't regulate, we are likely to escalate their reaction)

If we know that we have experienced a traumatic event , Walker says, we can also know that there is hope. She says, while the effects of trauma are real, so is the science that proves our brains are capable of change, growth and progress. We can get connected with a support system, which could include mental health care professionals who can help us build a reservoir of resilience through personalized coping strategies such as mindfulness and grounding exercises, therapeutic movement or practicing creativity.

Burrell Behavioral Health wants to help everyone on their journey to feeling better. To see what services Burrell has to offer, visit BurrellCenter.com. Burrell’s Be Well Community brings brain science to life through self-care and connection every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We can all join on Facebook Live.

Burrell’s FREE Crisis Assist Team provides immediate, 24/7 response to anyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis or is having thoughts of suicide. To get in touch with a compassionate crisis care specialist, anyone in Central Missouri can call 1-800-395-2132.


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