Merriam-Webster defines trauma as a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury. With current events like the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices across the country, our brains and emotions are on overdrive.
Recent NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences graduate Hayley Bayne is helping to guide her town in becoming a more trauma-informed community through her work with Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative (WCCI).
“It’s a volunteer nonprofit with over 200 members from different organizations throughout our county whose mission is to turn Watauga County into a trauma-informed community. Everyone who is a part of this is here because they truly care about WCCI’s mission,” Bayne said.
Bayne graduated from NC State in spring 2020, earning her master’s degree in Youth, Family and Community Sciences.
“I picked NC State because the program looked really interesting and broad enough to provide me with a lot of potential options coming out of it,” Bayne said. In fact, the 23-year-old is still deciding where she wants to focus her career, but for now, it’s on educating people about trauma and techniques that can be applicable in a variety of situations.
Understanding Our Brains
One of the techniques she’s learned and now teaches to parents and children is the hand model of the brain, created by Dan Siegel.
“The hand model of the brain is a way of explaining how your brain operates in a super simple way that even children can understand,” Bayne explained. “The model explains the different parts of the brain by relating it to the parts on your hand. The wrist is your brain stem and is responsible for everything you do without thinking — your breathing, talking and walking.
“Then you fold in your thumb, which is like the amygdala, and that’s your emotional response center. That part of your brain is pretty much in charge of fight or flight. It’s your survival brain. Then you fold your fingers down over it and that’s your frontal cortex or the part of your brain that is in charge of higher thinking and understanding,” she added.
So, what happens when people “flip their lid?” Bayne said thinking becomes more of an emotional response. It’s as if your brain has either shut off or has blinders up.
“If someone’s operating out of their emotional brain, you can sit there and tell them all day long, ‘Calm down, calm down, calm down,’ but until their brain truly turns back on, they can’t hear anything you’re saying,” Bayne said.
In her role with WCCI, Bayne deals mostly with parents and adults more than children; however, she’s also the coordinator for an afterschool program at one of the local schools in Watauga County.
“I have a lot of children in my program that have trauma backgrounds or something that affects their school learning or some type of trauma family structure issue. I take the things we’ve developed in WCCI and I apply them to children,” Bayne said. “And for kids who experience or witness abuse, it can be hard for them to achieve higher functioning. That’s why all the work we do in WCCI is so important.”
“When people are operating in a trauma brain or survival brain because something is going on in their lives, they’re operating out of only one part of their brain,” Bayne said. “It can be hard for them to stay emotionally regulated in school and to focus on schoolwork without the additional skills to help.”
Remember to Breathe
Bayne’s favorite calming technique for someone who might be operating with a survival brain is breathing.
“My biggest thing is breathing — really deep breaths. And if someone can’t take deep breaths, taking deep breaths beside them, so that you’re breathing for them, will eventually help their brain calm down because you’re calm right beside them.”
Bayne says everything she has learned through her work with WCCI can be applied to various traumatic and stressful situations, including issues that come with dealing with a pandemic and with racial injustice.
She says the goal is to have everyone in the community understand the science behind how brains work, especially in traumatic or stressful situations. Bayne says it’s really teaching a community to be resilient and compassionate to others.