From Survival Mode to Wellness: Healing from Social and Environmental Upheaval

Fall 2020

By Eleonora Bartoli

3.jpgThe COVID-19 pandemic has brought tremendous change in a short period of time. Beyond the drastic lifestyle changes and uncertainties about the future, the pandemic has brought into question the accuracy and sustainability of the ideologies—from individualism to meritocracy and capitalism—embedded in our social structures. Many of us were already aware of the forces that have always benefited the few at the expense of the most. In the past several months, however, we have been collectively confronted with the undeniable implications of our interconnectedness, the lethal realities of social injustices, and our fundamental vulnerability as humans. As the worldviews that have shaped our social structures have been challenged on a more widespread level, we have been feeling increasingly unsafe and less sure of our ability to control our lives. These conditions have been both disorienting and deeply distressing, to say the least.
This is the context in which school leaders are trying to build and strengthen school communities to deliver on their mission and educational promises. Events that deeply shake our sense of self and our view of the world can become traumatic, and what we have been witnessing and experiencing collectively in the past several months has indeed been traumatic for many people. Our current historical circumstances will continue to significantly impact the health and well-being of adults and students in school communities. As school leaders navigate the academic year ahead, they must understand the traumatic nature of this new social context, identify trauma-like reactions among their community members, and determine how to resolve the administrative and academic issues that will inevitably arise. As the ground continues to shift in unpredictable and rapid ways, leaders must set up structures to support faculty and students with the ultimate goal of infusing opportunities for healing and resilience-building at all levels—administrative, academic, and social. In doing so, school leaders will not only create supportive, resilient communities, but also schools with the power to transform our shared social context.
To begin, school leaders must ask: How can everyone—administrators, faculty, students, parents—fulfill their respective roles in the educational process while they are themselves navigating such tremendous upheaval? How can the educational process itself foster the development of the skills and resilience needed to actively and intentionally participate in this still-unfolding transformation? Fast-paced social changes mean both tremendous turmoil and tremendous opportunity—how can we maximize the latter while we are acutely aware of the former?
Exploring these questions using a trauma-informed perspective will allow school leaders to appropriately tend to the health and well-being of the adults and students in their communities. As we know, the ability to learn and grow rests on feeling safe and connected. For schools to create such a sense of safety and group cohesion at this particular time, it is critical that they be able to name and appropriately respond to the rawness of trauma reactions as they might manifest individually and collectively. Such safety and cohesion will rely heavily on school leaders’ abilities to communicate effectively and honestly as well as develop policies and procedures that acknowledge and support the healing of traumatic experiences. 

The Physiology of Trauma and Wellness

Once we understand what heightens our distress and the psychological costs of coping with challenges, opportunities for healing and resilience-building, at both the individual and system levels, will become evident. This involves looking at what it means to inhabit a human body designed primarily for survival and realizing that what keeps us “alive” doesn’t necessarily or automatically foster wellness.

As a human species, we have a somewhat hyperactive “threat detection system.” We are biased toward detecting danger: It’s more effective for our survival to incorrectly guess a shadow is a brown bear, for example, than to incorrectly guess the shadow isn’t a brown bear and get eaten. Because of this tendency to interpret unknowns as dangers, uncertainty and lack of clarity automatically decrease our sense of safety and raise our anxiety levels. We also don’t easily distinguish between what hurts us emotionally and what hurts us physically—it can all feel equally lethal. This is because we can’t survive alone, so rejection (at certain developmental stages or in certain social contexts or historical times) could mean death.
What happens, then, after we feel threatened? Our brain deploys one of three strategies:
  • Fighting, if it thinks it can overcome the challenge; this strategy can manifest as physical or verbal aggression but also as intense thinking or ruminating and planning.
  • Flighting, if it thinks it can outrun the danger, which can manifest as physical avoidance or emotional/psychological withdrawal.
  • Freezing, if it thinks that there is no chance for either winning or escaping. This strategy is meant to lessen the psychological and physiological pain of succumbing to danger; it can feel like intense helplessness—an especially difficult and potentially traumatic emotional response.
The more we feel threatened or unsafe, the more we deploy these strategies. The more these strategies are deployed, the less we have access to the parts of our brain that allow us to think, learn, be creative, empathize with others, and feel loved. Why? When in danger, our physiology is designed to concentrate all of its energy on reestablishing safety or minimizing pain. When we feel threatened, sheer survival is the main goal; everything else can wait. And while we are generally aware that as humans we are intrinsically vulnerable—and therefore that none of us is, or will ever be, perfectly safe—when we feel unsafe, our minds tend to think in all-or-nothing terms and seek “absolute” safety. Under threat we become less able to tolerate our vulnerability, and our anxiety quickly escalates.
It’s important to realize, however, that safety in and of itself doesn’t mean wellness—wellness requires more than the mere absence of threats. Feeling safe “enough” simply opens the possibility for wellness by allowing us to access our ability to authentically connect with each other. It is the (physiological) experience of authentic human connections that meets our emotional and physiological needs, which in turn allow us to grow and learn, to imagine and create. In other words, the more we experience safety and connection, the more we are able to engage in, and benefit from, educational activities.
While our survival strategies are clearly helpful in moments of crisis, they become problematic if they are triggered or employed chronically, as they inhibit the expression of our full human potential. None of us is immune to these deeply human mechanisms. Therefore, opportunities for safety, connection, and wellness must be available to everyone for a community to thrive.

Trauma-Informed Schools

Once we understand how we respond to threats and what allows us to thrive as human beings, the path ahead becomes clearer: The task of school leaders is to craft a context that creates “enough” safety first and then opportunities for connections. Schools’ success in delivering their academic missions rests squarely on this foundation, especially at a time of intense social upheaval. It is such safety and connection that enable the community’s innate capacity for growth and learning, creativity and wisdom.
Given the distressing and traumatic impact of our current uncertainty and social upheaval, the task at hand is to foster a sense of “flexible predictability,” accomplished by creating unambiguous structures that are not so rigid to be experienced as controlling, coercive, or rejecting. We need clarity and predictability to feel safe and flexibility to feel a sense of control—where both “enough” safety and control are needed for healthy functioning.
In a school setting, this means that leaders must be:
  • clear and realistic about what the school can offer and its limitations;
  • explicit about the expectations and roles of various constituents, including performance expectations where applicable;
  • inviting of and responsive to feedback from all parties (while still remaining responsible for the integration, operationalization, and implementation of suggestions, i.e., while still acting as competent leaders);
  • transparent about the values the school aspires to, remaining honest and realistic about the degree to which the aspiring is still a work in progress (i.e., avoiding over-promising);
  • diligent in providing regular feedback and avenues for reciprocal communication among all parties;
  • able to predict and name stressors as well as potential reactions to them; and
  • able to provide a degree of choice, as applicable (being mindful that too many choices can be experienced as a source of uncertainty rather than empowerment).

The Trauma of Injustice

These strategies are meant to foster a greater sense of safety and control, which are prerequisites for learning and growing—the central outcomes of all schools. Because of the nature of our current circumstances, however, it is critical to understand how witnessing and experiencing social injustices leads to specific ways of feeling unsafe and lacking control that, if not addressed, will undermine the positive impact of the above strategies. There are fundamental differences between environmental traumas, where the harm comes from events in nature (a pandemic), and interpersonal traumas, where the harm comes from fellow human beings (racial injustice).
While both environmental and interpersonal traumas are distressing, they have different trajectories. The primary difference is the “impersonal” versus “willful” nature of the harm. When the harm is willful, as in the case of interpersonal traumas, it’s exponentially more injurious for two reasons: It implies a betrayal of social contracts, which further shatters a person’s worldview and sense of safety; and we cannot expect it to come to a natural end, which makes interpersonal trauma chronic rather than localized—often building on a long history of similar events and experiences. And when the interpersonal trauma is also systemic or otherwise sanctioned, it doesn’t engender a systemwide caring response, which prevents access to the very avenues necessary for recovery (social validation and support).
Physiologically we might respond to willful harm in the same way we might respond to any threat—by fighting, flighting, or freezing. But injustice impairs the effectiveness of both fighting and flighting. The inability to successfully fight or flight in the face of a threat induces a freeze response, which is the least empowering of our stress responses and the most likely to have a traumatic impact. Injustice also obstructs our path to recovery and resilience-building by separating us from our internal resources—we are made to feel uncomfortable in our own skin, and we question our own goodness or worthiness. It also separates us from our external supports—by gaslighting us, separating us from the support of our communities and potentially allied groups, and making it unsafe for us to engage in valued cultural practices.
To counteract the trauma caused by injustice, school leaders must implement strategies that welcome and foster the effectiveness of our natural flight/fight responses and actively provide avenues for recovery and resilience-building through community connections. Such strategies become at once vehicles for healing and for promoting justice and resistance; without them, efforts to foster learning and growth will be severely undermined.
In a school setting, this means providing opportunities for:
  • speaking up and feeling heard—from mental health counseling opportunities to advocacy events to using resistance and justice themes as examples and applications in core academic subjects as well as extracurricular activities;
  • moving in free and joyful ways, whether through sports, music, art, or within/between classes;
  • integration of diverse beliefs and practices, through both curricular and extracurricular experiences; and
  • connecting by fostering multiple avenues for community-building—schoolwide events, affinity groups, interest groups.
To successfully envision and deliver on these strategies, school leaders must have a considerable level of multicultural competence, and school communities as a whole must develop the ability to deeply listen and authentically connect in spite of divergent opinions and experiences.

How to Do It Well 

Expect it to be messy. In the process of developing and implementing trauma-informed strategies, we must remember that neither healing nor transformation are linear or neat processes. We cannot easily transcend the structures that bind us; we inevitably reproduce them, to some degree, while we transmute them. And given that both our individual needs and the needs of our community shift over time, implementing any strategy must be thought of more as a dance than a static outcome. This is why it is critical to have a shared language and understanding of what we are trying to achieve and why; we must have a shared intention to maximize opportunities for safety and agency, healing and resilience-building.
Trauma-informed perspectives offer powerful tools to navigate the messy business of connecting with each other in the midst of much pain and much imperfection. Education systems—whether purposefully or unwittingly—too often foster the status quo and keep us in survival mode, but they have immense potential to become the place where we cultivate and practice the tools that will radically transform our world from one made for a few to one of collective wellness. May this time prove to be one of unprecedented transformation that will yield a more just world.  
Eleonora Bartoli

Eleonora Bartoli is a licensed psychologist with expertise in trauma, resilience-building, multicultural competence, and social justice. She is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and can be reached through