Trauma causes a stress response loop in the brain and body, commonly leading to feelings of exhaustion and dissociation. Trauma is a deeply disturbing or distressing experience that has lasting negative effects, even on youth mental health. Experiencing trauma can make people feel unsafe, harming their ability to regulate their emotions and manage relationships. Without emotional regulation and healthy relationships, trauma blocks students from being able to focus on their work, negatively impacting academic performance. Even after experiencing a traumatic event, people can feel intense physical and emotional fear that is expressed in the body.
Trauma can be a recent single event like a car crash or death of a family member, but it can also be a long-term pattern like verbal or physical childhood abuse or substance abuse in the family. Experiencing a single traumatic event often leads to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is intensified by ongoing trauma. This can also be thought about in terms of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), as each ACE is either a single or ongoing traumatic event. Trauma-informed care is important to help treat people with PTSD, as it is sensitive to potential trauma triggers and is specific to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy geared towards trauma management. A trauma-informed approach can also be used in schools by centering inclusivity and empathy in the classroom and school community. As school staff, it is important to be aware of what trauma is and its negative effects on mental and physical health as well as academic success.
Trauma stems from the brain's stress response, which can lead to lasting damage. Traumatic stress can lead to increased cortisol and norepinephrine, which over time can deteriorate healthy brain tissue and functioning. Chronic high cortisol is a major risk factor for developing dementia, as it is linked to poor cognitive functioning, especially in areas of the brain related to memory. In the brain, norepinephrine elicits an intense and aroused state, keeping the stress fight/flight system on constant alert, which depletes emotional resources and elicits anxiety, restlessness, and even weakens the immune system. Being a student is already difficult, as students are pressured to balance social, academic, and athletic life with little time for relaxation, so adding in trauma makes these normal activities more difficult and overwhelming.
Several studies show that long-term trauma and PTSD, results in verbal memory deficits. Smaller hippocampal volume is associated with trauma disorders, suggesting that the stress responses from trauma can limit memory. Trauma exacerbates stress, including academic stress because it limits the function of the brain and memory system. Students who have experienced trauma might be interrupted when trying to focus on an academic task or engage in a relationship because of intense flashbacks of the event. Trauma also interferes with students' sense of sense and confidence, taking away from their ability to engage with the material and in class discussions. Trauma takes away crucial skills, like focusing and communicating, that students need to improve their academic performance, leaving students with trauma less equipped to learn and succeed in school.
Neuroscience studies reveal that trauma disrupts social-emotional development and academic performance, because the body's stress response takes away healthy coping abilities and skills to regulate emotions. If a student seems recluse or distraught, they might be dealing with chronic stress or trauma so it's important to ask the right questions and keep an eye on them to make sure that they are getting the help that they need to engage in school and relationships.
Trauma can be hidden under the surface, and a way to help students manage their trauma is to connect them to resources that will help them develop healthy coping skills. If you are a school staff person who wants to support students with trauma management, Neolth is a digital stress and mental health support program for students and educators. We’re on a mission to help you stress less, build resilience, and become a part of our compassionate community. Using precision neuroscience, Neolth provides personalized support to meet you where you are.
About the author: Ginger Freeman (she/her) is an Editorial intern at Neolth and a senior at Santa Clara University studying Psychology, Public Health, and Asian Studies. Once she graduates, she plans to pursue a masters in counseling to become a licensed therapist. She is passionate about making mental health care more accessible and personalized, as well as applying zen theory to traditional psychotherapy. Through starting the conversation around mental health she hopes to reduce stigma and help people feel less alone! Outside of school, she enjoys spending time outside with friends, hot yoga, meditation, and listening to live music.