“The current situation clearly shows that migration is one of the most complex issues of our time; not limited to a place, but affecting all continents to a different extend. […] People flee from war, torture, human trafficking, terror and violence, and for so many people the uprooting, the loss of home and the separation become part of the experience. […] In addition to all of that, particularly the flight has an extremely traumatic effect, […]“
─ Claudia Winklhofer
These are the words that open the chapter Migration, Flight and Trauma, by the educator and psychotherapist Claudia Winklhofer in her brochure
Flight and Trauma in an Educational Context,
published in 2016.
According to the annual UNHCR statistics report Global Trends, almost 80 million people worldwide were seeking refuge in 2019. The Geneva Refugee Convention and Austrian laws define precisely which people can be recognized as refugees: People who had to leave their country of origin because of their religion, nationality, race, political ideology or affiliation to a certain social group, because they were persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution. Additional reasons to flee for children and adolescents are forced recruitment for child soldiers (boys), forced marriage for girls, gang affiliation, child trafficking or sexual exploitation. For more information see the Handbook Flight and Trauma in Context of Schools, updated by UNHCR in 2020.
What happens in the case of trauma?
Brigitte Lueger-Schuster, university professor for psychotraumatology, defines trauma in the article Trauma – from the perspective of psychology as follows:
“Trauma, Greek: a wound that reopens, originally being described as the physical consequences an organism suffers after a violent blow.
In psychological terms trauma is a confrontation with an event that de facto took place, to which the individual feels unprotected and helpless towards,
and where the usual defense mechanisms and coping strategies are no longer successful. Overstimulation is so powerful causing fear to arise automatically,
which one can no longer control. As a result, short-term and long-term mental disorders emerge.
Traumatisation means the process, whereas trauma is the result of this process.“
Peter A. Levine, one of the most famous trauma researchers and the founder of the trauma therapy method Somatic Experiencing, writes, that people can react differently to potentially traumatic experiences. Extreme situations can trigger lasting trauma in some people but not in others. However, if the situation is extremely violent, it is usually associated with persistent trauma. Time heals all wounds unfortunately does not apply to trauma.
“Deeply traumatic events are incomprehensible, incommunicable and therefore elude verbalization far too often. As a result, they lead to isolation and loneliness. What is crucial for the consequences of a trauma is not just the triggering event, but above all the events that follow. Therefore, a trauma may remain individually and socially active for years, even decades, and can also affect future generations.”
─ Claudia Winklhofer
In her book The Body Remembers, the trauma therapist Babette Rothschild states the following trauma symptoms:
Reliving the event through different sensory channels (flashbacks)
Avoiding all things reminiscent of the trauma
Chronic excessive excitation of the autonomic nervous system
Somatic disorders usually are the center of focus, such as an accelerated heart rate, outbreak of cold sweat, racing heart, or a heightened aversion response. If these symptoms become chronic, they can cause insomnia, loss of appetite, sexual dysfunction, or lack of concentration. Further consequences are: Lack of trauma memory, reduced emotional responsiveness, numbness and emotional dullness, indifference, increased irritability, aggression.
An image that may be helpful to us in relation to trauma is the following:
If restrictions (picture on the far left) caused by trauma can be eased in the body sucessfully (picture on the far right), a trauma can be healed. Trauma sensitive mindfulness exercises help facilitate just this process.