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What is trauma?

How can we define trauma?
School signpost in an informal camp
© The Human Hive 2022

Trauma is something we hear a great deal about in our society, but most of us don’t fully understand what it is. It is usually applied to dangerous or life-threatening situations and circumstances and describes something that feels big and emotionally challenging. It is often talked about when explaining the refugee experience.

It is important to note that trauma is not in an event itself, it is in a person’s response to that event. Not every refugee is traumatised, as everyone processes experiences in different ways. As you will see, trauma is a response of the nervous system and involves the mobilisation and locking up of the defence mechanisms of the body.


Just as with all other living creatures, when a person feels threatened or unsafe, their nervous system mobilises their body to defend itself. It can do this in a number of ways. Our primary defence systems are Fight and Flight, which require a great deal of physical activity. The body therefore has to mobilise a great deal of energy, which it does by:

  • elevating the heart rate to pump more blood around the body
  • speeding up the breathing to exchange gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) more quickly
  • sending blood to the muscles, bringing oxygen and glucose to where it is needed
  • heightening senses so you are ready for action.

That person is then able to fight off or run away from danger. Once the danger has passed, their nervous system can calm back down and recognise that they are now safe.


However, if a person cannot use the mobilised energy to defend themselves, the body has a third and fourth way of protecting itself which we call Freeze and Faint. This ‘shut down’ locks up the energy in the nervous system so that the person becomes silent and still. This was designed to trick our ancient predators to think we were dead so they would pass by and leave us alone. Once we were safe, we could then shake off any remaining Fight/Flight energy in the body and live to fight another day.

Humans have learned to mistrust and fear the strong feelings and behaviours that accompany the natural release of the Freeze/Faint response. Even though the danger may have passed, they don’t feel safe enough to release the Fight/Flight energy:

  • the necessary crying and shaking of release can be stigmatised as weakness and cowardice by society so we prefer not to show them
  • the feelings themselves can seem so overwhelming that we prefer not to experience them.

This can mean that the unused energy of Fight/Flight can stay in the system for a long time. This is trauma – the inability to release the strong emotions of Fight/Flight and know that you are now safe. It is like having a stress and anxiety dial in the body that is turned up full and that cannot be switched off – the body still thinks it is in the original dangerous situation that switched it on in the first place so never feels safe. Many refugees have been living with Fight, Flight, Freeze and Faint for a long time on their journeys and this may still be present within them when they first meet you.

How trauma might present itself

People with trauma in their systems may display some unusual behaviours:

  • difficulty concentrating/distraction
  • shorter attention span
  • difficulty sitting still for long periods of time
  • reduced ability to take in large amounts of information
  • difficulty interacting with you and other members of the class
  • intolerance to touch/physical contact
  • triggered emotion from seemingly unrelated subjects.

None of these behaviours are a personal reflection of you or your lesson but are a result of the thinking and social engagement parts of the brain going offline through trauma-related feelings of anxiety. This is why it is important to create a ‘safe space’ for your learners. The safer they feel with you, the less likely their trauma behaviours will be triggered and the more they will be able to learn.

Please remember that you are not a therapist and as a teacher you are not expected to solve your learners’ personal problems. Although we advise you not to ask personal questions about people’s journeys or the circumstances of leaving their home, you will find that people may speak about their experiences once they trust you. If they do, the best thing you can do is listen openly, with compassion and without agenda. In Step 2.9 Darren will talk about the importance of meeting people where they are today and creating a safe space for learning that respects their present needs.


Have you experienced any of the behaviours described? Are there any other behaviours you have seen? How did you respond to them? Share your experiences in the comments section and respond to others.

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© Cambridge University Press & Assessment/The Human Hive 2022
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