The kids at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore changed Kristin Atchley as an education professional. Tragedy there changed her as a person.
Today, Atchley uses what she learned and lived through to teach others about the impact of chronic stressors on growing kids and how trauma rewires our brains.
“I had a fully-developed brain as a 30-year-old. I knew I could get help and get through. Kids don’t always understand that,” she said.
Atchley didn’t have the personal or professional experience to understand the struggles and obstacles so many Oklahoma school children come to school with each day before she went to work as the school counselor at Plaza Towers, which serves a high concentration of students living in poverty.
“I had traumatic events happen in my life, but I didn’t have chronic trauma,” she said.
Then, shortly before afternoon dismissal time May 20, 2013, an EF-5 tornado razed the school full of children and faculty.
Seven of her students died.
In the weeks after the tornado, Atchley found herself one evening paralyzed to leave her house to buy milk for her small children. And she cringes as she tells the story of an emotional meltdown she had when she tried to replace her favorite sandals — the ones she wore and had destroyed on the day of the tornado — only to learn that the manufacturer had stopped making them.
“I struggled with anxiety from the loss of control I had experienced. I would get tingly; my heart and mind would be racing,” Atchley said.
Even after extensive therapy, Atchley still has disturbing gaps in her memory from the hours after the tornado. And all of these years later, images of tornadoes and the sound of a helicopter passing overhead like so many news helicopters at the time can still trigger sudden, emotional responses of fear and anxiety within her.
It crystallized her understanding of how high levels of chronic stress from experiencing or witnessing abuse, growing up with a parent with mental illness, suffering significant losses and other breakdowns in family life, can literally change a person’s brain chemistry and leave emotional scars for life.
“When you are in the middle of trauma, you don’t think through consequences. Kids in chronic stress are often just reacting out of adrenaline,” she said. “My trauma was out there for the whole world to see on the news. The majority of our kids, their trauma happens behind closed doors. But even the things we don’t know affect a kid’s life.”
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