Research shows that connectedness is the most important shield AND antidote to traumatic experiences. Dr. Bruce Perry and Dr. Gabor Mate suggest, respectively: “Disconnection is at the heart of trauma.”, and “Children don’t get traumatized because they’re in pain; it’s because they’re alone in their pain.”
Being alone in our pain is an intolerable feeling; uncomfortable in our own skin and at the mercy of an overly reactive nervous system. Desperate to alleviate the pain, we are forced to adapt. We disconnect from our authentic selves: numbing out, dissociating, and self-medicating. We also engage in a never-ending cycle of seeking regulation, or homeostasis. We may become hyper-vigilant, impulsive, quick to anger, manipulative, controlling, aggressive, hopeless, apathetic, numb, absent-minded, poorly-focused, and engaged in distorted thinking and beliefs. Because our survival brain cannot tell time and does not have the capacity for intellectual reasoning, we get stuck in the past; because the present is too painful.
A large focus of the It’s About T.I.M.E. program is on connectedness, building relationships and a sense of community at a school; helping staff understand the therapeutic power of relationships to both mitigate and heal from trauma, but also to promote regulation and well-being amongst the entire student body and faculty. Connection is the key. Connection to the self through yoga, meditation, and mindfulness is extremely powerful. Connection to culture and tradition is vital. And, lastly, connection to nature is often an over-looked element of human psychology.
Connection to nature is powerful. Even prisons allow inmates time on the yard to see the sky and touch the grass and dirt. The highest paid executives get the offices with the best views. And somehow, camping in the heat or cold, eating less-than-luxurious food, dealing with bugs and bears, being filthy and smelly, and sleeping on the hard ground feels like a vacation. A connection to nature is important. That’s why I was so excited when Ground Education reached out to It’s About T.I.M.E. to collaborate and provide some trauma-informed consultation to support their amazing work.
Ground Education is a local non-profit that believes the natural world is the natural place to nurture every student’s academic, physical, and emotional well-being. For over a decade, Ground Education has taught nature-based lessons in elementary school gardens and green spaces and they are committed to creating learning environments where all students have a deep sense of belonging.
It’s About T.I.M.E. provides validation to the mission of Ground Education, offering a trauma-informed lens for understanding, and tools for building resiliency in the children they serve. Working with sensitized nervous systems is not an easy task. A brain wired for survival is not quick to trust or connect. Instead, it is likely to resist novelty with avoidance, pushing away with disrespect, or provoking familiarity; which, to them is an adult who is angry and rejecting. Being aware of these very normal and expected behaviors is part of being trauma-informed. Helping Ground Education respond to these behaviors with understanding, empathy, and ways of regulating the child is crucial. Equally crucial is the understanding of the contagious nature of our emotional states. It’s the adult’s ability to be regulated in the presence of others who are dysregulated that re-wires brains. Adult self-care and self-regulation cannot be overlooked.
The presence of a gardening program at an urban school in a trauma-inflicted community is incredibly therapeutic. Trauma often robs the victim of several key components of healthy psychological and emotional development. We need to feel a sense of agency or control of something, especially ourselves. Gardening checks so many boxes for healing traumatized children and supporting all students. Growing a plant is a form of nurturing. It requires care, attention, and patience to produce something beautiful. A store-bought fruit or vegetable is never as delicious nor is a flower as beautiful as those we grow ourselves. It provides us a sense of control, “I made that!” Gardening also grounds us, centering our nervous system to the present, where it should be, sensing safety instead of threat. We feel the soil and water, we smell the fertilizer, flowers, and vegetables. We see new, bright colors and shapes not often found in the concrete gray jungle. We get to experience insects as helpful and beautiful rather than disgusting or reminders of our poverty. And most importantly, we’re experiencing all of this together, with our fellow classmates and teachers.
Being in touch with nature provides us with a powerful sense of belonging. We belong to each other, not just as humans, but as a part of the Earth. We’re all connected.
Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, has worked as a Clinical Therapist at The Guidance Center for more than 10 years. In this role, Swaringen helped guide children and families toward positive and productive futures through mental health treatment. In 2016, Swaringen developed and launched our trauma-informed pilot program based on ChildTrauma Academy’s Neurosequential Model in Education, called It’s About T.I.M.E. He is passionate about working with school staff to create nurturing environments where all students can thrive. Swaringen earned a Master of Social Work from University of Southern California, and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from California State University, Fullerton.