Nina Gilbert is a trauma counselor with the HOPE Program, providing trauma-focused counseling to children affected by crime. She joined Catholic Charities in early 2013. She earned her Master of Social Work degree at Fordham University.
Children who have experienced trauma, whether a one-time occurrence or ongoing stress (such as domestic violence), often have an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system. In other words, they are living their lives in a high state of arousal which can lead to behaviors like aggression, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. Trauma can also set a child on a rollercoaster of emotions, making it hard to calm down, stay focused or to trust the world around them.
Rollercoasters of emotion are something I know well. As a broke, impulsive, 20-something living in New York City not that long ago, I found myself in the middle of complete physical and emotional chaos. On one hand, I was having a lot of fun exploring the city and getting to know new people; on the other hand, I was sleep-deprived, stressed and feeling lost. It was then, after discovering yoga and beginning its regular practice, that I was able to bring balance back to my life
When I first started working with my clients, I quickly found that I was opening up deep emotional wounds during our counseling sessions. Since I see children during school hours, it became apparent that I needed to find a way to help my clients calm down before I sent them back to class.
Yoga proved to be the perfect way to do that. I started by teaching deep breathing and yoga poses at the close of our sessions. The kids loved it!
Today, yoga and breathing are the bookends of my counseling sessions. We begin with yoga and we end with yoga; it helps contain all of the emotions that happen in between.
Current scientific research abounds with studies showing how yoga reduces stress. Its purpose is to help ease the mind by calming the body. Yoga postures and breathing help the body release and relax, which, in turn, sends signals to the brain that everything is OK. This is the root of why yoga helped me in my 20's and it is the same principle that helps my clients now.
Here is an example of its impact on one of my clients, an 8 year old boy. We were talking about some pretty difficult stuff that had happened in his life that day. He was crying and clearly distraught.
As we were moving toward the end of our session, I asked him to stand up with me and we did our breathing, balancing, and warrior poses. I told him just to focus on his body and his breath as I guided him through our closing series.
Those brief moments of reprieve from thinking about his life helped to calm him down and restore a sense of control for his world. The lesson was that although we cannot change what happened, we can be strong enough to manage it. Through yoga, he could better manage.
The results are pretty consistent. Yoga introduces a way to calm down in a crazy world, and it's something the kids can take with them, even after they have graduated from the program.
The HOPE Program is a free program to children 5 to 18 years old living in Davidson County who have been affected in some way by violent crime(s). HOPE is funded by the Office of Criminal Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice.