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How Trauma Affects Teachers (and How to Heal)

How Trauma Affects Teachers (and How to Heal)

There is a lot of talk in the education world currently about students who have experienced trauma. However, students are not the only ones affected by trauma. Teachers can be affected by trauma and this can influence their mindset, emotions, and reactions in the classroom. Join us as we speak with Janyne McConnaughey about how trauma can affect teachers and how to find healing.

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[Linda] Today, I'm excited to bring you a conversation with Janyne McConnaughey. You might remember Janyne back from episode 121 where she talked about trauma-sensitive teaching and how to support and help our students in our classroom who are affected by trauma.

[Linda] But Janyne recently reached out to me with the idea and the very real concept that trauma doesn't just affect our students.

Often, we as teachers have been affected by trauma at some point in our life, whether it was a huge trauma or a compilation of smaller traumas. She brought up this reality that trauma can affect how we relate to students in our classroom. And so she's back on the podcast today to talk about this. We will also discuss how the trauma that we as teachers may have experienced might explain some of the challenges that we're facing and then what to do about it. So I encourage you guys to check out and listen to this important episode.

[Linda] I did want to offer a disclaimer that Janyne's viewpoints are her own and do not necessarily completely reflect my personal viewpoints or official viewpoints of Teach 4 The Heart. But she has such an important perspective and a perspective that is built on her experience and so I thought it was very valuable to share it here. 

[Linda] Janyne, thank you so much for being with us here today.

[Janyne] I am more than happy to be here and talk about this topic. So I'm excited about the interview and thank you for asking me back.

[Linda] Yes. And if you guys did not catch Janyne's original episode, she talked about supporting students that are affected by trauma. But we're really excited to tackle another side to this issue today. Janyne, you're the author of quite a few books and you have a new book coming out in the spring. Can you tell us how those books fit together?

[Janyne] I can. The three books will end up being a trilogy. They all surround the trauma that I experienced as a young child, which began in a daycare at the age of three. Most of what happened to me from the age of three to 23, my family was unaware of. You have to read Brave to fully be in on the story. But I repressed most of it. The first book tells the story of me going to therapy at the age of 61 and how all of my coping mechanisms just began to unravel at that age.

[Janyne] And so the second one is the book to help people to understand the thought processes of children who've been traumatized and how to best help them. It explains what things I needed as a child that would have helped me. That's my book to teacher educators, so that they can better understand the children.

[Janyne] Then the third one, A Brave Life: Survival, Resilience, Hope and Faith After Childhood Trauma, is really my faith journey. My dad was a pastor and my mother was a teacher. I was in church probably the week I was born. I grew up in the church. My abuse occurred in the church, but also all the people who really truly helped me to survive were in the church. But the problems I had that I felt were spiritual, weren't. That's what we're going to talk about today. What we're talking about today comes out of that third book of my adult journey before I went to therapy.

[Linda] Jayne’s books are really fascinating reads. She does such a great job teaching through story, so you guys will definitely enjoy them. You have to check them out. What was your purpose in writing this third book? You've shared a little bit about that, anything you want to add there?

[Janyne] Well, I think that as I began healing, I began to see that I lived most of my adult life using coping mechanisms that I created as a child that were really ineffective. I was super strong and resilient and clever, but I realized during healing that I didn't have to fight to live every day. That life should not have been that difficult. That I didn't have to wake up dreading the day every day. That life could be joyful.

[Janyne] I think this book came out of my heart of wanting people to realize that what they think is normal maybe isn't, and that there is help and there is hope for healing. And so I think that really is why I wrote it. People are struggling spiritually and I don't think it's spiritual. I wanted people to understand that I think it's stuff that happened to them as kids that can be healed. That is why I wrote the book.

[Linda] Yeah, what an important message to get out there and I'm excited to talk about it with you today. Can you share some examples? What are some of the ways your trauma affected you as a teacher, as an adult? Did you even realize these things at the time?

[Janyne] I didn't. I mean, I knew I had anxiety issues and I knew I had depression. I'm not against medications because medications helped me to live my life and raise my family and kept me stabilized, but when you take medication, it numbs everything. It doesn't numb the bad stuff, it numbs the good stuff and so healing is a better route, but I'm not against medications. I was on antidepressants and felt great spiritual shame for that. That maybe I didn't trust God enough. I mean, I heard sermons on that. I was sitting there with my medication and hearing sermons on that about how I was failing spiritually if I needed medications.

[Janyne] I thought, “Well, my mother had anxiety, so my anxiety must be hereditary.” I think similar things happened to my mother. I think she was abused also, so what looked like hereditary wasn't. It was just both of us and how we reacted to trauma. So I thought it was hereditary. I thought I just had anxiety. I was depressed. I didn't know why I was depressed. My life was good. I just didn't know. I think a lot of people live that way. You don't realize what you're dealing with is PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is really what I had. So maybe I should talk about PTSD right here. 

[Linda] Yes, please.

[Janyne] Okay, so before I went to therapy when I'd hear PTSD, I would think soldiers, people in the military, they had PTSD. And really our attention to that is so important and that's where a lot of the research has come from. But in reality, any type of trauma, whether it's military trauma, sexual abuse, even verbal abuse as a child, neglect as a child, your body reacts just the same. Your body doesn't distinguish between, “Oh, well, this happened to me or that happened to me,” so I'm going to react. All of it makes us feel threatened as children or adults and our body reacts in ways to protect us. And without help, that gets embedded in us.

[Janyne] The anxiety was part of PTSD, the flashbacks. So one thing I didn't understand is that when we think of flashbacks, we think of guys in the military that are reliving their battle. A lot of people have visual flashbacks where they're reliving and they can visually see the abuse or whatever happened to them. But mine were emotional flashbacks, so I couldn't visualize what happened. I repressed it, I didn't remember it, but I felt the emotions at that moment. So I have these moments where I would just drown in fear, or sadness, or depression, or all of the emotions that went with it without being able to connect it to anything that was going on in my present world, or anything I can remember. And so that's another aspect of it.

[Linda] Okay. It was just like an attack of emotion. You had no idea where it was coming from. What else?

[Janyne] I was hyper-vigilant. I had superpowers. I talk about in the book how if anybody lost anything, I could probably tell them where it was because my mind literally walked through life taking snapshots of my surroundings constantly. Anything that was in a random place, I would snap a picture of it. And when somebody would ask me, I'm like, "Oh, it's under the stairway. It must have fallen through the stairs." It didn't even make sense. I would know where stuff was.

[Janyne] I trained teachers. I knew everything that was happening in every corner of the classroom all the time. I thought it was great that I was somehow especially gifted to be able to do that. In reality, I was hyper-vigilant. My mind was always on guard. I was always looking for danger. I was always checking for the door.

[Janyne] Then in another area, I felt like I had to control everything. Well, those poor kids in my class, I mean, imagine having a teacher who never misses a thing. But then I thought I had to control it and that comes out of childhood experiences where you have no power. I would catch myself trying to be very controlling in the classroom. When kids wouldn't cooperate with me, then I would have these odd, really angry moments that frightened me. I love children. I dedicated my life to children and yet, I would become very, very angry with a child. It was because the child was doing something that threatened my control. Does that make sense?

[Linda] Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Talk a little bit more about why these reactions and these traumas were making you respond this way as a teacher.​The Whole-Brain Child​​​

[Janyne] The brain develops from the back of the head forward. Dan Siegel has this wonderful upstairs downstairs model in The Whole-Brain Child where he talks about it. He talks about how the brain-stem is just automatic reactions. Like, you touch something hot and you jerk away. You don't even think about “Oh, this is hot, I need to pull my…”, no, you just-

[Linda] It's instinctive.

[Janyne] That's lower brain brain-stem function. Then in the middle of the brain is the amygdala and hippo-campus and the limbic system. It is where you filter stuff. But it's very emotional. It will react to danger that doesn't actually exist without the top part of the brain, which is your cognitive part of your brain, the part that develops last. And so when you think about an infant, they're hungry, they cry, they think they're going to die.

[Linda] Right.

[Janyne] Anyone who has taken care of an infant, you're trying to get the bottle or whatever and the baby acts like they're going to die... Well, that's because they think they are. They are just trying to communicate, they're in desperate need. And so if you think about that, then you can think about an older child that is afraid of something, but logically there is nothing to be afraid of. That's because they haven't fully developed the top part of their brain.

[Janyne] Dan Siegel talks about flipping your lid. It makes sense in a child. But as an adult, it's harder for you to recognize. You feel threatened and your lid flips, which means your cognitive stuff goes offline and you're just dealing out of your emotions. So road rage, that's exactly what road rage is. Somebody feels threatened by something, like they got cut off, and their lid flips. They aren't thinking with their thinking part of their brain. They're just emotionally reacting.

[Linda] I got you.

[Janyne] Yeah. So if you understand that kind of brain framework, then you understand how a teacher sometimes can get triggered by the very children in their classroom or the parents, okay. Every teacher has had an angry parent land on their doorstep. Right?

[Linda] Yes.

[Janyne] Sometimes that angry parent is living out of that defensive mode. It's really important as teachers to just remain calm and to keep your lid from flipping. Especially if you have verbal abuse in your childhood background, that is really hard to do because as soon as somebody is yelling at you, it triggers that emotional reaction from childhood. And then you just have two people going at each other and nothing productive is happening. 

[Linda] This is helpful. Let's recap here. We're saying sometimes as teachers, we are having this response. It's almost like the response you'd picture a child in immaturity happening, right? But it might be because there is this underlying trauma that when something happens, when someone is yelling at you, or when it's re-triggering all this, the more primal parts of your brain are taking over and overriding how your common sense and your logic would have responded. That's a sign of trauma. Am I understanding that correctly?

[Janyne] Yes. That's perfect. Thank you. The executive functions are all up there in the top part of the brain and so we don't process well, we don't react well. Our mid-brain sees danger a lot, and especially for trauma survivors. With as much work as I've done with healing, I'll still catch myself. I can feel my lid start to go, but there is a pause point right there where I can say, “Wait a minute, I'm not in danger here.”

[Linda] So you've learned to recognize that.

[Janyne] Yes, I've learned to recognize that. Let me give an illustration of, I taught developmental math at the college level for many years. I think we talked about this in my last interview too, how math seems to be that trigger. If you're going to have a kid in your class who emotionally collapses, either by acting out or collapsing inwardly, it's more than likely to happen around math. I would have adults break down and cry in my classroom. I would have them storm out of the room. I would let them process through it.

[Janyne] At the end, they would be really embarrassed. They would say, "Oh my goodness, I'm so mortified that I did that. I just can't believe I yelled at you in class.” I said, “What were you feeling in that moment?” I intuitively knew to go there even though I didn't know as much as I do now. They would say, "Well, I don't know. I just started thinking about how my dad would yell at me when I was doing my math homework because I couldn't get it." 

[Janyne] To me, that is a prime example of how current situations trigger those emotional memories embedded in childhood. I think that many people have moments in their classroom where it's not our best moments. We know it's not our best moments. Spiritually, we want to say, “Well, that's the sin nature,” but maybe it's not. Maybe it's trauma. Maybe there is something underneath there that we just need to go heal, so that that doesn't happen.

[Linda] What I'm hearing you saying is that, if a teacher is realizing “There is some trauma that's affecting me, maybe I'm making it through, but I can tell it is having these effects,” that they do need to seek out help. Is that what I'm hearing you say?

[Janyne] Yes. I think that's why I got up off the couch, the therapy couch. Why I published Brave was because when I looked back, I was just so overwhelmed with the fact that I didn't have to live my life that way. I mean, what will bring me to tears in any interview is the realization that I could have been present for my children. I mean, I was a great mom. I studied child development. My kids will say, "Yeah, you were a great mom." But then at the same time, they say, "Yeah, it kind of makes sense now."

[Linda] Right.

[Janyne] I know I wasn't emotionally present for my children. I know that. And so it makes me really sad now to look back and realize, “Did I make it through? Did I survive it? Was I successful?” Yes. In the eyes of everyone who saw me, I was successful. I lived through it. I did not have the abundant life and I knew it. I think that’s a segue to the spiritual, right?

[Linda] Yeah, talk about that.

[Janyne] I'm communicating with one of my readers in South Africa. How interesting is that? She gave me permission to say this or I wouldn't say it. She said, "No one has ever told me that it wasn't a spiritual problem. That I just need to cry through this right now because no one ever told me the problem wasn't spiritual."

[Janyne] I'm speaking at a theology conference in the beginning of February. That's the part that I'm addressing, is our reactions that come out of trauma. I think when you study the interactions Jesus had with people, I see a deep understanding of trauma. I see compassion. I see placing the blame where the blame belonged. I see so much of that through Jesus taking time to care about people and He knew their stories. Right? He never judged them. He was never harsh. He understood. He never once said they had a spiritual problem. He just didn't.

[Janyne] And if you dig into the meaning of what we call sin, which is a multilayered thing, and we try to make it one dimensional, we see that Jesus was often very, very compassionate to people even when they were doing things that were unhealthy for them. And really that's what the Ten Commandments are all about, our relationship with people and our relationship with God and the things that damage those relationships. So to give people permission to work elsewhere from the spiritual is really what I'm trying to do.

[Linda] Yeah. This is really helpful to think about because a few things come to mind. Tell me if I'm on the right track with this. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, that when we see sin in our hearts, or a wrong reaction, the point of that is to send us to Jesus to realize how much we need His grace, how much we can't do on our own. But you're right about this aspect that just praying about it is not the only solution to everything.

[Linda] I was thinking about when someone is diagnosed with an illness, a physical illness like cancer. Faith has such an important aspect in how you deal with that. Right? Our trusting God or belief in God should impact entirely the way we deal with a difficult diagnosis. But that doesn't mean that we don't go to the doctor. Right?

[Janyne] Right.

[Linda] You don't pray away the cancer, you go to the doctor and you work on the physical. The spiritual aspect is hugely important in getting through that and God is with you every moment. I don't know how you could face something like that without Him, but this I think is the same. I think sometimes traditionally or in the past, we didn't understand these issues as well. And so we would say, "Well this is a mental thing or an emotional thing," and so that's just all spiritual. There are spiritual elements to it and how could we ever deal with that without God?

[Linda] But I think what I'm hearing you say is that there is also an element where just like you wouldn't ignore the doctor for cancer, sometimes there is external help that you really need to heal your emotions and your mind and the way your brain processes. Am I understanding that right?

[Janyne] Yes. I want to say right here, because the thing about trauma is that trauma embeds in the whole body. I talk about in Brave how my trauma, as a result of one of my experiences, it's in my hands. And so if I'm going to hurt anywhere it's going to be my hands. I've done a lot of massage therapy and a lot of EMDR, (eye movement desensitization) and reprocessing around that to try to help get the trauma out of my body. So even though, yes, it's a result of how our brain reacts to the trauma, the chemicals that flood flood every cell of our body.

[Linda] It is physical.

[Janyne] Even though it is in the head, it directly impacts the entire body. The ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) research tells us that physical health is directly related to what happens. Those ways that our mind triggers our body.

[Janyne] Okay, so an example. I went to the chiropractor yesterday. There are two psoas muscles that hook your legs to your body and they connect to the spine. They're the “fight and flight” muscles. They are the ones that the brain tells, “Something bad is getting ready to happen and you need to get out of here.” They send chemicals down to activate that muscle to run. Okay. But as a child you can't run. And so all of that gets stuck in your body. So my one muscle is inflamed. I went to the chiropractor and he said, "Oh, we can help the muscle and it will lessen those symptoms." It's in my body. It's directly connected.

[Janyne] We're westernized, and all we think about is our head. We don't connect the fact that diabetes, heart attack, heart problem, all of these things increase with trauma as children. And so we're finally beginning to make that connection that even the illnesses that we have are results of trauma. Not totally, I mean there is some medical. I need to say that. There are medical...

[Linda] But it can be related.

[Janyne] Yes. The more trauma episodes that you have as a child, which is what the ACEs study shows. There is a scale of 10, and the more of those that you have greater increases all sorts of things, like alcoholism, smoking, suicide, unhealthy behaviors, illnesses. It increases the chance of those. But the thing is the body can heal.

[Janyne] You can heal the trauma in your body. You can prevent all of those really bad effects from occurring, but you have to realize that you have trauma. That's the point of this, isn't it?

[Linda] Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing all that. I think what you just shared was an incredible realization that this is the tiniest tip of the iceberg. This is such a big topic. If this is really resonating with a teacher and they're realizing, “Man, I need to find out more or I need a next step,” how can they best either connect with you or your books? Which of your resources would you recommend for them as their next step in finding out more or seeking out help?

[Janyne] I mean, if they know that there is a sexual abuse in their past, my first book addresses that. It's not an easy read and sometimes it's triggering. I'm not graphic at all. I do my very best not to trigger people.

[Linda] You do well.

[Janyne] I mention a lot of things in that book. I'll self-promote right here. I post on my author page. My author page is more about information about trauma and childhood adversity than it is about my book. Sometimes I'm like, “Oh yeah, my books. I'm supposed to be promoting my books,” but really I'm a teacher. And so I post a lot on that page, on my Facebook page that is resources. Also, the Attachment and Trauma Network, which I'm on the board of directors for and their website is a wealth of information. It's especially to help people to work with kids who've experienced trauma, but there is plenty of information for everyone.

[Janyne] The book that is really helping the world is The Body Keeps the Score​ ​​​​​by Bessel van der Kolk. And then you have Peter Levine in Waking The Tiger. There are so many resources. When I started on this journey, I had to really search. But it's really out there now and so many resources. Educating yourself is so important. But it's hard if you haven't healed, it can be disturbing to realize and to read that.

[Janyne] On my website, I have a resource page where I show all these books. That's the easiest way to get and they link to where you can buy them.

[Linda] Thank you, Janyne.

[Janyne] Thank you. It's been a joy. Thanks.

[Linda] If you feel like you do need a therapist, Janyne has some recommendations for that on her website, especially if you've experienced a particularly deep trauma and you feel like that would be helpful for you.

[Linda] Another organization that I would recommend to you, not necessarily for specific help with trauma, but just they're a tremendous organization that gives counseling from a Biblical worldview. If you feel like you would like to talk to someone and think through what the Bible has to say, how can I overcome these challenges, they are called Fieldstone Counseling. We support them at Teach 4 The Heart, and they are a tremendous organization. They do remote online counseling. No matter where you are, there is a strong possibility they'll be able to work with you. In the meantime, keep growing, keep trusting. You really are making a difference.

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