15th April 2021
All the way through this year’s Poetry By Heart competition, teachers have been telling us that poetry has been a lifeline for lots of children and young people. We’re intrigued by the idea that poetry might help us all to find our way out of the Covid tunnel, but we’ve been hard pressed to put a finger on what it might do or why. We invited Dr Mariah Whelan, the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College, Cambridge, to help us understand it through the perspectives she brings to bear from an understanding of trauma.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of young people in the UK. If you work in education you’re probably acutely aware of this but the data is now starting to confirm it, too. In a survey of 11-17 year olds conducted by the NHS in 2020, 54.5% commented that lockdown has made their lives significantly worse. Even more worrying, however, is the fact that young people’s lives weren’t all that great before the pandemic hit.
According to the Good Childhood Report published by The Children’s Society in 2020, in the past decade British children and young people’s happiness and sense of wellbeing has significantly decreased. UK children are now ranked the lowest in Europe for ‘life satisfaction’ and UK children aged 15 rank the lowest of all those surveyed for having a ‘sense of purpose in life’. What we have then, is a situation where underlying poor mental health has been exacerbated by an acute global health crisis. The UK government is committed to ‘Building Back Better’ but what might this mean for the UK’s children and young people in terms of their wellbeing?
In this blog I’ll explore the ways that poetry – writing it, reading it and learning it – might help to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on young people. In order to do this, I’ll explain how we might productively frame children’s experiences over the past year through the idea of trauma. I’ll outline trauma as a set of processes that happen in the bodies and brains of humans when we are exposed to significant stressors. Poetry, I’ll suggest, can help to alleviate the symptoms of this traumatic stress, encouraging psychological healing and an improved sense of wellbeing.
Trauma: what is it?
Psychological trauma is a set of neurological processes that take place when humans are exposed to overwhelming stress. Every day human beings take in massive amounts of sensory data that our brains process into schemes of knowledge, understanding and prediction. Different parts of the brain are involved in this process but they can roughly be split into two groups: the limbic brain (which is evolutionary older, unconscious and interested in our survival and emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (which is evolutionary younger, conscious and makes rational interpretations). In stressful situations, these two parts of the brain operate as what psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk calls ‘the smoke detector’ and ‘the watch tower’. When we’re exposed to stress our limbic brains go off like a smoke alarm, causing our bodies to secrete stress hormones. Our hearts race, our palms get sweaty and our breathing increases getting us ready for ‘fight or flight’. The prefrontal cortex, however, is the part of our brain that allows us to ‘hover over’ our ‘feelings and emotions’ allowing us to decide if we really are in danger: is that a tiger lurking in my peripheral vision or is it just a bush that looks like a tiger? The super-speedy limbic brain will make you gasp and your stomach drop almost instantaneously when you perceive a threat while the slower rational brain will talk you down from that state of fear as you appraise the situation and realise that you’re safe.
Traumatisation happens when our ‘smoke detector’ and ‘watchtower’ are thrown out of balance. When we face life-threatening and terrible events, our conscious brain is confounded and unable to tell the limbic brain to switch off. We stay in ‘fight or flight’ mode, our bodies surging with powerful stress hormones. Our ability to integrate events into autobiographical and narrative memory becomes inhibited, our experience of linear time can become unreliable and experiences register as disconnected sensory impressions. We can begin to suffer contradictory symptoms that manifest along an erratic timescale. A person might not be able to recall what has happened to them and yet also experiences intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and profound feelings of guilt and shame. We may find ourselves engaging in re-enactments of traumatic events, unable to make positive decisions for ourselves while compulsively engaging in high-risk behaviours. At the less extreme end of the spectrum, we can begin to experience feelings of disconnection, depersonalisation and low mood.
While we associate trauma with catastrophic events, exposure to continuous low-level stress can throw our limbic and conscious brains out of balance resulting in traumatisation through chronic means. For young people in 2020-2021, pre-existing worries about exams, the future, crime, poverty, loneliness and bullying have been exacerbated by the acute crises associated with the pandemic. We have a cohort of students with some of the worst mental health in the world. As of 2020 there are 8.9 million children in English schools alone. How can we possibly deliver appropriate mental health and wellbeing services to so many children across a diverse range of educational settings?
Healing Trauma with Poetry
One key strategy for alleviating the symptoms of trauma is to support people to reclaim and tell their story. When we experience traumatic events, our conscious brains are overwhelmed and unable to process experience into narrative and autobiographical memory. Our experiences are instead coded as ‘traumatic memories’ within non-verbal parts of the brain as emotions, moods and fragmented sense impressions. For Judith Lewis Herman, however, people can be helped to ‘speak of the unspeakable’. Giving narrative shape to traumatic experiences helps to integrate traumatic memories within the wider personality, alleviating many of trauma’s symptoms.
While reclaiming one’s story might help to mitigate the effects of trauma, it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to try and translate the chaotic and fragmented experience of trauma into linear forms of storytelling. In this context poetry can offer an alternative way of expressing difficult experiences. Poems very rarely come out fully formed, instead they usually begin with a single image, word or line that in turn gives birth to further patterns of images. These images very often work more by association and implication rather than by explicit narration, relying on simile and metaphor to obliquely address their themes and ideas. Using poetry then, we can start to stitch together our story out of the emotions and flashes of sensory data that are available to us. It offers us a mode of expression that is appropriate to the experience of trauma, allowing us to approach difficult experiences in oblique ways.
The creative processes involved in writing a poem can have a positive impact on the trauma-damaged limbic system (our emotional ‘fire alarm’). Before I ask my students to write a poem, I guide them through a series of breathing and focusing exercises. These exercises help students to calm down, feel safe, connect with their interior world and pay attention to their bodies and emotions. Deliberate and conscious relaxation prepares students for writing but it has an added benefit of telling the limbic system it’s safe to switch off. During the writing process itself, I encourage students to come back to this place of mindful calm as, when trying to write a poem, it is very often a question of relaxing in order to find the next word or phrase rather than trying to consciously force it to come.
Composing a poem can also help to re-engage the imaginative faculties that are impaired by an out-of-control limbic system. In my classroom, I often ask students to create a mental picture of whatever they are writing about by focusing on how the ‘object’ or ‘scene’ looks, feels, tastes, smells and sounds in their mind’s eye. This activity helps to increase blood flow and cognitive activity in the parts of the brain responsible for imagination, re-activating and strengthening the creative faculties. This imaginative capability can then be used to help students imagine better futures for themselves and their communities, an ability that is again often impaired in traumatised brains. Finally, moving the body, including shaking the arms, standing up and even going for walks, are also key poem-writing strategies for loosening up conscious control and surrendering to unconscious wisdom. Movement and body-based therapies are playing an ever-more important role in our treatment of trauma as moving the body helps to activate and heal the non-verbal parts of the brain where trauma can be stored.
In addition to writing poems, reading poetry can have enormous benefits for the traumatised brain. When we engage in silent reading, the human brain projects its sense of self into the text. We ‘read ourselves into literature’ and this can help people to connect with their own experiences by empathising with the experiences of others. When we read a poem about emotions that echo our own, for example, we often experience feelings of recognition and validation. Poetry not only offers us a way to feel our own feelings but does so by exercising our empathetic abilities which, once again, can be particularly damaged by trauma. For Sue Gerhardt, reactivating empathy is key to any therapeutic relationship, allowing individuals to reactivate the ability ‘to be heard and to listen, to listen and to be heard’. The page becomes a place where individuals can discover their experiences by empathising with others, reclaiming their emotions within an interpersonal context that can move at a comfortable pace of their own choosing.
Learning poetry by heart also offers potential avenues for improving our sense of wellbeing. Although no research has been conducted into how memorising and reciting poems impacts on mental health per se, research has been conducted into how learning poems by heart impacts on the brain. In ‘By Heart: an fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose’, Adam Zeman and his team used magnetic resonance imaging to identify the parts of the brain stimulated by different kinds of reading. Self-selected passages of poetry known ‘by heart’ activated areas of the brain associated with ‘internal mentation including autobiographical memory, envisioning the future […] theory of mind, and moral decision making’. These are all areas of cognitive activity that are negatively affected by traumatic experiences. While it is yet to be formally studied, there is much potential for exploring how learning poetry can help to bolster the parts of the brain damaged by trauma and to alleviate its symptoms.
In 2020-2021, the underlying stresses faced by children and young people in the UK have been exacerbated by the acute crisis of a global pandemic. Traumatisation, an imbalance of the limbic and conscious areas of the brain caused by extraordinary and/or sustained stress, has serious consequences for learners. To mitigate its effects, poetry offers one way to support young people. In my classroom, I’ve certainly seen the benefits poetry’s non-linear forms, mindful methods and activation of empathy and imagination can give to young people. One caveat, however, is that poetry of course can’t solve everything. While creative and poetry-based interventions can be extraordinarily helpful, they cannot be a replacement for the professional psychiatric care that some children will require to come to terms with their trauma. That said, as the oldest literary art form, poetry has been used for centuries to help humans understand ourselves and our world. Writing, reading and learning poetry might just offer us one way to support children and young people to process what they’ve been through over the past year. Doing so might be one way to meaningfully and authentically begin to ‘Build Back Better’, addressing the damage done to young people by the pandemic and the underlying stresses that impact on their lives.
Dr Mariah Whelan is the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College, Cambridge. Her first collection the love i do to you was published in 2019 and won the AM Heath Prize. She is a Fellow in Creative Practice at University College London where her interdisciplinary research project ‘Poetry: an Art Practice Predicated on the Unknowable’ explores the relationship between poetry and knowledge.