Revisiting Trauma as a Graduate Student

In this post, a graduate student in a social sciences program reflects on some ways graduate experience may involve revisiting and managing past trauma.  

Yesterday, I woke up to someone wailing at the top of their lungs. It was the type of noise you would hear when people grieve uncontrollably. When I quickly scrambled out of my bed to look out of the window, I discovered nothing unusual other than maintenance fixing the community gate. No one else was outside of my apartment. As I unlocked my bedroom door to peek around the corner of the hallway, I overheard the television playing in the living room. I then realized that my roommate was watching a movie and the person screaming was Angelina Jolie. Nevertheless, this horrific wail triggered me unexpectedly and brought me back to a dark place that I had avoided for most of my adult life.

I immediately retreated to my room and threw myself onto the bed out of desperation. Memories of previous traumatic events began to flood back in my mind. My body began to tremble, while I was sweating bullets. My eyes glazed over and my breathing was tremendously heavy. My limbs became temporarily immobile. I ultimately went into a state of panic and anxiousness, while spiraling out of control with my thoughts. All those years of therapy felt completely worthless during that moment and nothing else seemed to matter. Trauma memories were stored in mind and my body quickly remembered and reacted consequently.

What seemed like hours lying motionless in bed was only about ten minutes. My body slowly began to recover as I realized that I was in a safe environment. I crawled to my yellow bathroom and eventually managed to take a shower, which always seemed to be therapeutic to me oddly enough. As my face became flushed by the scalding, hot water, I was reassured that I was very much alive.

During my panic attack, I initially thought that my body had ‘betrayed’ me by releasing trauma that I had buried for years. But after reading literature on trauma management and previously discussing trauma with mentors, I knew that the human body contributes physiological responses in triggering events to protect itself from potentially hazardous situations. My body was releasing the indescribable grief I held for so long. This unpleasant incident, surprisingly, gave me clearer insight regarding my recent traumas within the academy as a graduate student.

Since starting graduate school, I had unexpectedly relived my ‘big T’ traumas and experienced multiple ‘little t’ traumas. From discussing my horrific experiences with students related to gender, sexuality, and religion to discussing rape culture during lecture, I had to confront these fears for the sake of my health and activism. I murmur the words ‘me too’ underneath my breath as students disclose their trauma memories of sexual assault. I cry tears of joy whenever I successfully provide support and resources to students exploring their sexualities and gender, while reflecting on my personal discoveries. These moments have assisted me in my own trauma management by making me more comfortable discussing these sensitive topics in the classroom and activism.

Practicing self-care outside of graduate school has significantly helped me cope with my trauma. I now go on long walks during the evenings and watch the sunset. I call friends and mentors for advice. I recently rekindled my old love of vinyl records and dusted off my record player to play Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion. I distance myself from the academic world sometimes to keep my individuality, relationships, and passions intact. I force myself every day to not give into ‘graduate school guilt’ and to enjoy all the moments that bring meaning to my human experience. As a social scientist in training and as an activist, I must continue to practice self-care and know my limitations, so I can best help those I am assisting without being a ‘wounded warrior’ during the process.

Despite my successful attempts to recharge, I still see and revisit trauma every day in graduate school. This could be partly due to my unique experiences and understandings of the social world while performing multiple roles as a researcher, teaching assistant, graduate student, and activist. Nevertheless, in the social sciences, we do have the unique opportunity to change these all too familiar struggles within the academy, by maintaining interactive dialogues regarding trauma management and actively supporting members of marginalized groups.

Why is it that the academy often fails to tackle or even acknowledge the experiences of trauma among students and faculty, especially those who are women, LGBTQ people, and people of color? Surely academics recognize the crucial need of providing a safe, empathetic space to share their experiences of trauma, harassment, and microaggressions within the academy without the fear of negative consequence? Trauma should not be stigmatized in the academy nor should academics attempt to silence those who express their trauma memories. Leaders must drastically change how we train, support, and treat survivors of trauma. I hope this essay can be insightful and reflective to members of the academy, especially to those who are graduate students learning how to navigate revisiting experiences of trauma.

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