In this episode, Jeff Somers and Matt discuss the nature of stress and trauma and the need to focus on recovery as we transition into a “new normal.”

In this episode, Melissa Vine joins the show to discuss the link between trauma, entitlement, and domestic/intimate partner violence.

Melissa Vine, MA, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor with 13 years of experience in business ownership, is the current Executive Director of Beacon of Life, a trauma-informed, equity-centered transitional home and programming for women recovering from domestic violence, incarceration, and substance use.  As a professional speaker, leader, and domestic violence survivor, she passionately empowers others to act with courage in the face of life and work challenges.  She received a bachelor’s in Communication Studies in 2002 and graduated summa cum laude with a master’s in Professional Counseling in 2016.  Melissa was in the 2021 class of the Des Moines Business Record’s Forty Under 40, 2018 recipient of One to Watch, and the 2014 recipient of Service Business of the Year by the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce.  She has spoken for the Business Record’s Fearless launch, Iowa Board of Regents Campus Safety and Security Summit, Arts Midwest, Banker’s Trust, UnityPoint Clinic, the UNI Center for Violence Prevention, and the Iowa Small Business Summit.  Melissa lives in Des Moines, Iowa with her four teenage boys and volunteers with the Downtown Chamber of Commerce, ACES Steering Committee, and Des Moines Public Schools.

Website: www.melissavine.com

Email: melissa@melissavine.com

Phone: (515) 402-1463

Established in 1980, the nonprofit organization Beacon of Life is a trauma-informed, equity-centered, evidence-based 34-bed home in Sherman Hill that provides community, healing, and growth for women who have faced trauma, abuse, substance use, incarceration, and homelessness.  Clients live in this sober, 24-hour-staffed environment as they work through a structured program for 6 – 24 months with a Case Manager. Programming addresses mental health, substance use recovery, career development, financial literacy, trauma recovery, healthy relationships, and physical health.

Beacon of Life website: www.beaconoflifedm.org

Beacon of Life email: director@beaconoflifedm.org

Phone: (515) 244-4713

 

In this post, I want to explore what someone’s Heart Rate Variability (HRV) tells us about the impact of trauma and stress on their mind and body. In the next few posts, I’ll explore how HRV helps us quantify wellness, healing and post-traumatic growth. One of the things that got me really excited about HRV was how a simple measure tells us so much about psychological, emotional, cognitive, and social health.

Most of those reading this post understand trauma’s impact on the brain and nervous system and the science that shows how the brains of those with untreated complex trauma (high ACE score) operate differently. While it might seem odd, the best way to measure this impact (assuming you don’t have regular access to expensive brain-scanning technology) is through the health of the autonomic nervous system as measured through variation of time between heartbeats. HRV provides us a window to access the effects of trauma on the biological health and functioning of those we are trying to help.

Let’s explore the connections between the brain, heart, and trauma. During intense stress and trauma, one of two systems in the body gets activated allowing energy to support behaviors needed to survive the traumatic experience. Initially, in most people, the sympathetic nervous system is activated sending energy normally used by the brain to the body for flight (getting distance between the person and cause of stress or trauma) or, if one cannot flee, fight (attacking the sources of trauma). If these systems fail to reestablish safety, the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve (a part of our parasympathetic nervous system) activates the freeze response where most systems in the body slow down dramatically and often leads to dissociation or disconnection from reality.

People who experience repeated trauma or live in constant stress or threat rely heavily on the sympathetic response that strengthens these systems (including the amygdala). This reliance on the sympathetic response often results in behavior and thinking that often get diagnosed as anxiety disorders, anger control issues, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Others, especially those experiencing repeated physical or sexual abuse where they have no power or ability to run or fight, rely heavily on the dorsal vagal besides resulting in dissociative disorders, over activation of the dorsal branch results in depressive symptoms.

This traumatized nervous system is associated with less activity in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and other areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, memory, and cognitive functioning. How does this impact our heart and HRV? To understand the connection, we need to include one additional system central to health and wellness.

Our respiratory system syncs with our heart through a process called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). When we inhale, we activate our sympathetic nervous system increasing our heart rate. On the exhale our vagus nerve activates slowing our heart rate. A healthy nervous system (and body) reflects a balance between our sympathetic nervous system and dorsal vagal nerve and a low resting heart rate. The more robust the system the more variation between each heartbeat and higher HRV score.

Plenty of research demonstrates that those with high ACEs who have not received treatment have lower HRV scores. As a reflection of an unhealthy nervous system, low HRV correlates with the same diseases and social problems found in the ACE Study. While I always find it interesting when medical science supports ACE research, we could shrug off HRV if all it did was support that high ACE scores negatively impact people’s health and biology.

The exciting news about HRV is that it does not just give us another measure of the devastating impact of trauma. While someone with a high ACE score will likely score low on HRV at baseline, improved HRV against that baseline shows our interventions are helping to heal their nervous system resulting in increased resiliency, emotional regulation, social engagement, and other crucial components of post-traumatic growth. I believe HRV opens up a whole new way to think about healing, a topic I want to explore more in future posts.

I ended my last post on heart rate variability (HRV) with…

I want to leave you with the hope that so much of the mystery and speculation of the healing process is now quantifiable. A simple biometric that will help us move our thinking on best practices from what works for the masses to what works for this specific person and where they are at in this moment of their journey.

As someone who considers it their job to stay on top of advancement in the trauma field, I’m astounded at the number of checklists and implementation guides coming out to help people on their trauma-informed journeys. It seems like every type of organization, program and focus area has multiple checklists to choose from with more coming out each day. I believe that providing people a structure for their improvement processes is a positive thing and even created a checklist myself as part of an intensive training program over a decade ago.

Checklists are useful because they provide mile-markers and tasks as people try to operationalize the different theories of what makes an organization or program trauma-informed. However, in the flood of checklists, we often struggle to find measures to answer the most critical question when embarking on a trauma-informed improvement journey. Are our efforts improving the resilience and facilitating post-traumatic growth in those we are helping?

Most trauma trainings speak to the effects of trauma on the brain and nervous system and for many of us, the Adverse Childhood Experience Study became much more powerful when coupled with the science on how trauma impacts the brain. While we have long known about trauma and the nervous system, we had little way to measure this impact or how our interventions and treatments improved nervous system health. We were left trying to glean outcomes from self-reports on assessments or behavioral changes.

The technological advances that make HRV accessible and affordable allow us to establish a baseline for each person. This baseline, when compared to population norms, provides us insight on how stress, trauma, and current life challenges are effecting an individual’s social, emotional, cognitive and medical health. One central goal and outcome of any trauma-informed program or interventions is to help the person’s nervous system stabilize and heal. Quantifying post-traumatic growth allows us to measure the effects of interventions on a specific individual and adjust our approach based on the data.

HRV and other biometrics will not replace improvement checklists. However, I hope that in the next couple of years, another measure will start to appear on these lists. The program improves the health of the person’s nervous system and social, emotional, cognitive and medical health as measured through increases in heart rate variability. Right now, it is just a dream, but a dream within all our grasps!

I finished my last post with:

Just over a year ago, I learned about a reliable, intensively researched and simple biometric that measured the health of the brain, nervous system and all the other systems (digestion, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory) that were negatively impacted by trauma. Research also showed that this biometric effectively measures improvements or declines in social, emotional, and physical health. (Click here for full post)

In the history of medicine and psychology, there have been a small set of significant events that helped reset our understanding of health, illness, and treatment. Antibiotics, MRI brain scans, cognitive behavioral therapy, vaccinations, trauma-informed care, X-rays and other advancements have changed millions of lives over the past hundred years. Today, another scientific and technological advancement has the power to be just as impactful on human health and wellness especially for those struggling to overcome the pain and suffering of trauma.

So, what is this powerful biometric that measures both the impact of trauma and the post-traumatic growth process? It turns out that our hearts hold a fantastic amount of information and wisdom on the health of our minds and bodies.

Most of us know that heart rate is a measure of the number of heartbeats per minute. We now know that the true wisdom of the heart speaks through the rhythm of its beat. The rhythm of the heart is termed Heart Rate Variability or HRV. HRV is the variability between successive heartbeats over a period of time. Heart rate measures the average number of beats per minute, HRV concerns the intervals between each beat.

If we are listening, HRV provides us messages about the impact of trauma, stress and harmful behaviors on our minds and bodies. If we are listening, HRV also gives us information on the effectiveness of interventions, positive life choices and charts the healing process. We are entering a period where we can measure what is happening underneath the skin and get a window into the mind.

Obviously, we need a more in-depth exploration of the science in future posts. But I want to leave you with the hope that so much of the mystery and speculation of the healing process is now quantifiable. A simple biometric that will help us move our thinking on best practices from what works for the masses to what works for this specific person and where they are at in this moment of their journey

What if we could measure the effects of our interventions and resources on the body and minds of our clients in real-time?

I started my career just as the quality improvement and best practice movement started to influence service delivery and funding in the helping professions. While so much good evolved out of these movements, it remains difficult to measure outcomes, especially in the short-term. Often, we are left hoping our short-term efforts serve as small steps on the journey to more substantial outcomes such as permanent housing, family reunification, graduation from high-school, viral suppression or other future states that take months and sometimes years to achieve.

Learning about trauma’s impact on the brain, nervous system and overall health, I was frustrated that I never had the means, technology or funding to measure how our interventions improved brain and nervous system health and the resulting post-traumatic growth. I could sometimes measure what was happening outside the skin through behavioral change, medical labs, achievements and assessments. However, our efforts were helping some heal, their mind and body remained a mystery.

Just over a year ago, I learned about a reliable, intensively researched and simple biometric that measured the health of the brain, nervous system and all the other systems (digestion, immune, cardiovascular, respiratory) that were negatively impacted by trauma. Research also showed that this biometric effectively measures improvements or declines in social, emotional and physical health. Over two decades into my career, I finally found the quality measure I only dreamed of before and saw its power to help quantify and evolve the trauma-informed paradigm.

A few months ago, I started a journey. My goal was to find a way to help bring this revolutionary science into the helping professions as a crucial step in our work to create trauma-informed interventions, organizations and communities. Over the next several months, I will share my journey and the research that I believe will change the way we provide services forever.

Me: Where did my e-mail list go?

MailChimp Support: We really don’t know.

Me: Well, I’m sure you back up your user’s data, could you restore it for me?

MailChimp Support: Actually, we don’t back up our data and are unable to restore any lost information.

Just like, that years of traveling the country and building an e-mail list of passionate people disappeared into the great void of the internet. After a few minutes of cycling anger, sadness, and loss, I took a breath and jumped back into my upcoming training and writing my trauma-sensitive school book. Not only did I not have time to mourn the loss of the community I spent years building, but I also didn’t see how my anger and sadness helped me achieve the tasks right in front of me.

A week or two later, a new strategy emerged. Instead of trying to recreate the list or start a new one, I would utilize social media to get my message out to the world. Like most people I talk to, I’m in a love/hate relationship with social media. I enjoy staying in touch with people I would normally not see for years and struggle with all the ads, privacy issues, and political wars that fills my feed on a daily basis.

The break also gave me a chance to step back and rethink the blog. While it isn’t hard for me to put out a new post every Friday, sometimes my travel and training schedule leaves me with a lack of creative juice. Other times, my thoughts need more space than the short posts I try to write weekly. I’m using the change to increase my flexibility and variety in my writing. I hope this will improve the quality of the content I share.

If you are interested in continuing to follow me, please click the social media icons on the top of this page. Thanks for your continued support, participation, and amazing work!

I’m writing this post at 40,000 feet returning from an amazing eleven-day training trip in New England, a good portion of the trip in Provincetown, Massachusetts or Ptown.

I first visited Cape Cod and Ptown a year ago for a training I did with Duffy Health Center in Hyannis. I immediately fell in love with the beautiful beaches of the Cape. Long stretches of sand dunes, tall grass, and modest gray houses mixed perfectly in a way the big hotels and tourist traps of many beach towns can’t match.

I spent every free moment walking and running on those wonderful beaches. On the last night of my trip, several people from Duffy suggested I needed to visit Provincetown. I shrugged it off at first, with more beaches to explore, why would I spend time in a town. Plus, Ptown sits at the very end of the Cape requiring travel to eat up a good part of my last night.

If you ever sit through one of my trainings, you understand that you get to know me pretty well by the end. So, I took the advice of my new friends in Hyannis. I figured I could use every bit of daylight to explore and hike then work my way to Ptown in the evening.

As night fell, I continued north until I entered Ptown. At first, I was a little appalled at what I saw. Overcrowded streets, hard to find, overpriced parking, and a mini traffic jam. But I was there, so I found some parking and set out to explore.

It took less than a minute to understand why the journey was a must. The main strip of town, Commerce Street, was pack with beautiful people enjoying a perfect Cape Cod night. What made Ptown unique was that the crowd was about 80% gay men with a few hetros and other LGBTQ+ folks mixed in. Rainbow flags flew off every building.

Unlike the party atmosphere of the Pride Celebrations I’ve attended, these folks were just enjoying the weather, restaurants, music, and theater on a street primarily lined with older, well-kept two- and three-story buildings from the fishing past of the Cape. Walking down Commerce Street, I kept saying to myself, “This is my America!” While I only spent a couple hours exploring Ptown, it was an amazing way to end my wonderful first trip to the Cape and an experience I’ll never forget.

Then something amazing happened. At this year’s Ryan White HIV Conference someone from Cape Cod HIV Support Group attended one of my trainings and wanted me to come out for a four-day series in Ptown! Even better, we scheduled it in June so my wife could join me for part of the trip.

Spending eight days in Ptown was very different from the couple hours I spent a year before. While the weekend was crowded and fun, the “normal” Ptown is what I carry with me on my way back to Colorado. Whether at the grocery store, coffee shop, restaurants, or beaches there were always more LGBTQ+ folks than hetros. Same-sex couple kissing, holding hands in the street, or just talking at a coffee shop did not even register in our consciousness after a couple of days and the rainbow flags just became part of the scenery. The normality of gay life in Ptown was so beautiful because it was so boring, typical, and predictable.

I left Ptown for a beautiful drive to Troy, New York to speak at the 20th Annual HIV and HCV Clinical Care Symposium. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Troy, but it struck me as a very normal East Coast industrial town transforming its economy and creating a great downtown. Back in “Normal Hetro-America,” I missed the feeling of Ptown being my normal. The flags were gone, and I was solidly back in the majority (though being at an HIV event helped my transition).

I’m not sure when I’ll get to return to the Cape and my favorite little town at its end. However, I love America, even more, knowing that Ptown exists.

par·a·pro·fes·sion·al

/ˌperəprəˈfeSH(ə)n(ə)l/

Noun. A person to whom a particular aspect of a professional task is delegated but who is not licensed to practice as a fully qualified professional.

As most of you know, I am always thinking about my language. Over the years, I’ve worked to remove terms like homeless person, addict, traumatized person, HIV Positive, and other ways our society labels people by their most negative characteristics from my vocabulary.

As schools become more of a focus in my writing and trainings, I’m really struggling with the term paraprofessional or paras for short. When I think about the future of trauma-sensitive schools, people currently called paras play a crucial role. I’m advocating that increasing the amount of para support in classrooms will help students with trauma get the social, emotional, behavioral, and academic support they need to heal and succeed in school.

We need to provide these professionals and the partner teacher with specialized training and supervision to help them meet the social-emotional needs of their students. Not only would this approach offer students the individual attention they need, but it would also support our teachers, increasing their capacity to utilize their academic expertise and not just focus on behaviors. I, also, believe we need to push mental health expertise into the classrooms to support teachers in addressing the behavioral struggles of their students with trauma (that’s another post).

A job title defined as a not “fully qualified professional” demeans the critical role they play in the lives of their students and the teachers who universally treasure the support these folks provide their classrooms. Labeling paraprofessionals communicates that we could throw anyone in the classroom and get the same results. Strong paras improve every aspect of the classroom. An investment in more para support is an affordable approach to improving the classroom experience for students struggling with the behavioral and academic results of trauma.

Instead, let’s find a name that demonstrates their value and let’s train them, so they are “qualified” for the work they truly do for our students. Teacher’s Assistance is better but still doesn’t go far enough. How about Instructional Specialist? Here is the definition for a specialist: a person who concentrates primarily on a particular subject or activity; a person highly skilled in a specific field. Now that describes the great folks I meet that possess every bit of passion and brilliance as people I meet with graduate degrees and more formal titles.

Label and title demonstrate the value a person has to society and its children.

We are burning ourselves out at alarming rates.

There are aspects of our jobs that will not change. We’ll continue to struggle with funding, the emotional intensity of working with populations with complex and compound trauma, lack of resources, too little time, audits, paperwork, etc., etc., etc. However, we must identify and change practices that frustrate us and don’t produce results.

It makes zero sense that places for healing and wellness and those who serve as healers, mentors, and teachers experience high levels of social dysfunction and cognitive/emotion exhaustion. Meeting and poor team dynamics are far from our only struggles, but they are things, with a little effort we can address and improve.

Meetings are expensive things when you start adding up all the staff time spent and the cost of salaries. It doesn’t take much time or energy to create norms, agendas, decision making structures, and other practices that improve meeting productivity. Team dynamics take a little more time to develop and improve, however; an effective and supportive team is one of the best ways to prevent burnout, promote strong outcomes, and ensure financial health.

A little work goes a long way in improving morale and increasing productivity.