What Could a Red Balloon Teach Us About Trauma?

I parked in front of a grocery store this past weekend to pick up my spouse as she was coming out. A guy pulled up next to me, rolled down his window, and started honking his horn (solid 20 second honk with no break). Shouting profanities that everyone in the parking lot could hear. He finally drove away after a few minutes of this. A staff worker came out to talk to me. He started asking me all sorts of questions. I couldn’t remember the car, the color of the car, the license plate, or anything else really, because my amygdala had taken over, orchestrating the squirt of adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine, and epinephrine I needed to “fight, flight or freeze” leaving me less inclined to think logically and more about how to survive. My baby was sleeping in the back seat. And my body was preparing to defend and protect if the guy got out of his vehicle to pursue his dysregulated impulses.

I was in a fog for the rest of the night, a kind of shut-down of my mind and body. It’s the same night I lost my wife’s wedding ring.

I kinda knew what was going on and was able to adjust and engage in soothing activities to get my body and brain back online. But it got me thinking about that state of fear and threat. And what it’s like to feel like that, all the time, especially in moments when there really is no objective threat. And what it’s like to shepherd, love and parent someone whose body struggles to feel safe even in safe situations.

Do you remember this classic? From Nena’s 1983 self-titled album. Goldfinger released a great cover (in my opinion!).

I was most likely still under the care of my birth mother in Seoul when the song was first released in 1983.

This post is about trauma. Specifically, our body’s response to it. You can think of it as more psychoeducational in nature than a typical entry, but with a soundtrack.

It can feel so confusing, frustrating, even scary when supporting children during their most intense moments of dysregulation, arguing, tempers and outbursts, or complete shut-downs. What are we supposed to do??!

After our time together today, you’ll hold a deeper sense of empathy for children who are struggling to stay regulated in their classrooms, community events, and in their most important relationships. The hope is your “interventions” would flow from these understandings.

You might also find yourself singing the lyrics from time to time as you serve and care for a child recovering from developmental trauma (infants and children who’ve experienced abuse, neglect, adverse childhood experiences, including separation from primary caregivers).

We’re gonna do that by taking a basic tour of trauma through the verses from 99 Red Balloons…

“The English version retains the spirit of the original narrative, but many of the lyrics are translated poetically rather than directly translated: red helium balloons are casually released by the civilian singer (narrator) with her unnamed friend into the sky and are registered as missiles by a faulty early warning system; the balloons are mistaken for military aircraft which results in panic and eventually nuclear war, with the end of the song near-identical to the end of the original German version.” (wikipedia)

…and the basic framework of trauma response:

“The Sympathetic Nervous System and HPA axis are both activated as part of the stress response and work in concert to promote adaptation, or allostasis, by enabling organisms to adapt to changing conditions in their environment. In considering the neuro-endo cascade as it relates to high stress, we often consider the big players to be cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. During stress and trauma, the “fight or flight” response is activated – epinephrine increases your heart rate so you can move fast. Norepinephrine sends blood to large muscle groups and the lungs, and pupils dilate. Cortisol is released, which over time suppresses the immune system.  Emotions intensify and, as the limbic and endocrine systems go into full speed, the executive functioning of your brain decreases (frontal lobe blur), and the reptilian brain takes over.” (Christina Cowger, MA, LMFT)

You wanna sing or should I? 

Ok here we go!

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
‘Till one by one they were gone

Selah #1: 

Sensory input: this is sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, vestibular and proprioceptive, experiential, etc. Sensory input can activate areas of the brain that were active during the initial trauma. The body is reminded by anything. Something as simple as a balloon, a limit, a deviation in routine, a facial expression, an unexpected noise, the scent of your deodorant, a new person, a transition from one activity to the next, anything could become a threat as it activates the body’s alarm system.

Ok, hit play 🙂

Back at base, bugs in the software
Flash the message, “Something’s out there”
Floating in the summer sky
99 red balloons go by

Selah #2:

Executive Functioning generally operates in the prefrontal cortex, that space right behind our forehead. What’s executive functioning? It’s the area we use for planning, decision-making, judgment, anticipation, etc. Bessel van der Kolk MD refers to it as a kind of smoke alarm or a rider on the horse or a chef mixing all her ingredients together. It’s also been referred to as a kind of air traffic control. Info comes in. Decisions go out. We engage in impulse control (should I stay or should I go), working memory (what am I supposed to be doing right now), and cognitive flexibility (what adjustments do I need to make based on feedback and how others are responding to me).

The main point is our prefrontal cortex is responsible for assessing input and making decisions. Perhaps you’ve heard of Phineas Gage? Part of his frontal cortex was pierced by an iron bar. Those who knew a well respected and tactful railroad worker now described him as:

“fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires…. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man…. His mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.” (Google Scholar)

Trauma can have that impact on our brain. Either the body marshals resources in order to survive (which has long-lasting impact on the brain) or the body never developed an appropriate emotion regulation system (because it was chronically in a state of fear and survival).

Good things seem bad and maybe bad things seem good. Or, inhibitions become distorted. A child with executive functioning needs would benefit from an adult or trusted caregiver to help her make safe and prosocial decisions in those areas where she could not do it on her own. Because that part of her brain no longer functions the way it was designed. There’s hope, though. And we’re getting there.

99 red balloons floating in the summer sky
Panic bells it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else

The war machine it springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky as 99 red balloons go by

Selah #3:

The body becomes a war machine. Looking out for and protecting itself from any potential threat in the environment, in relationships, in public and in private. For children, when this panic system springs to life, it just means their bodies are terrified, allocating all its resources to survive.

Remember when I was was prepped to defend and fight at the grocery store? I was flooded with the body’s trauma cocktail, ready to engage in battle.

I was parked in a no-parking zone. I was clearly wrong. And I admitted that to the worker who came out to check on us.

But I wonder. Parents yell. Teachers get upset. Peers are mean. Siblings blow up. Schedules change. People come and go. Life is unpredictable. In moments of dysregulation, a child whose war machine is lit up is not in a posture cognitively to receive or remember or digest or care about our parental lectures and threats. He won’t engage in intelligent conversation or rational philosophical dialogue about what the expectations were and how he failed and what he needs to do better next time. Even though he needs to hear it at some point, it’s not what he needs at this point.

And we won’t just wait until his war machine runs out of gas. We’re going to help his executive functioning get back online.

Have you ever had the internet go out and you have to reset the router?

Ugh. I hate when that happens.

Our children aren’t born with the skill of resetting their own routers. In other words, they aren’t born with the ability to become calm on their own. And sometimes the wiring in their brain and body and gut is assaulted through trauma and their regulation systems don’t develop properly. Whatever the reason, they need “co-regulation.”

They need the calm that comes through our living and active God who is our present refuge in times of trouble… the God who chooses to apply the work of His love and power through the faithful Spirit-charged presence of people like you.

99 Decision Street, 99 ministers meet
To worry, worry, super scurry
Call out the troops now in a hurry

This is what we’ve waited for
This is it boys this is war
The president is on the line
As 99 red balloons go by

Selah #4:

Unfortunately, various situations and life circumstances confirm our fears. And we wait for it. There really are violent people. Unhelpful adults. Caregivers struggling to manage their own trauma. Siblings or peers who really are unsafe. And so we’ve been waiting for this. We’re ready. Until there’s enough input to disconfirm the world is an unsafe place filled with unsafe people, our bodies will continue to feel keyed up and on edge, ready to battle for our life at a moment’s notice. We’re minutemen in modern bodies.

99 war ministers
matches and gasoline canisters
They thought they were clever people
already smelled a nice bounty
Called for war and wanted power.
Man, who would’ve thought
that things would someday go so far
because of 99 balloons.

Selah #5:

Simple sensory input could “trigger” all this? It’s just a balloon. It’s just pausing the iPad until tomorrow. It’s just cleaning up our game. It’s just a song on the radio. It’s just a list of chores. Really? Because of a little homework? Because I said something in a different tone of voice?

And now you’re ripping things off walls. Lying. Cheating. Stealing. Hitting. Yelling. Spitting. Kicking out the windshield. Breaking furniture. Substance abuse. Running away. Sexual health concerns. Arrests. Murders. Hatred. Homelessness.

Things might escalate. You might escalate. And maybe you didn’t sign up for this.

It does go far. I know. But here we are at last, our final verse.

99 dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty
In the dust that was a city

If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here
And here it is, a red balloon
I think of you and let it go

Selah #6:

Damage is done. Remember, something so small causes damage so large…. because something so large and traumatic happened in the first place.

I hear our children saying something like:

I think of you. The person present with me in my life right now. We’ll have time to talk about the future and the past, but right now is where my body and brain and nervous system are happening. Will you still love me? Will you still try? Will you continue to fight for me and not against me? There will be more “red balloon” moments. I even create them myself.

And no matter how many, please assure me you’ll stay near, until my body (re)learns how to feel the pleasure and safety of innocent play, trust and fulfillment, intimacy and purpose, love, hope, and belonging.

I don’t enjoy being in a constant state of panic. I don’t like being made fun of at school, disliked by peers, looked down on as if I’m some kind of “damaged goods” with no hope. Most people in my life go away from me. Important people in my life go away from me. Or they’ve sent me away. I need you to draw near. Would you do that?

So, what can we do?

Research trauma-informed therapy in your area (e.g., EMDR, mindfulness, dialectical behavioral therapy, dance, yoga, martial arts, kickboxing, things that integrate “top down and bottom up” cognitive processing so that the trauma becomes something that happened long ago rather than making the body feel as if it’s happening here and now, etc.). Talk to mental health professionals in your community. Reach out to your tribe on social media, find out how they’ve navigated trauma. Attend a workshop. Invest in a simple online course. Find free courses. Read good books on trauma (e.g., Trauma and Recovery, Body Keeps the Score).

Lastly, would you help add to this list of recommendations? What have you found helpful? Where have you gone for support on trauma and recovery? How has your parenting been enriched over the years, what resources have helped you?

Selah #7:

A last thought on the “dust that was a city.”

“For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.” -Hebrews 13:14

Isn’t it wild how Jesus prays for us, the ones who nailed him to a cross? And then, after resurrection, he continues to bless and serve while carrying the imprints of that trauma in his hands and body. He actually uses those imprints to speak truth into the lives of perhaps even the strongest of skeptics. I can only imagine what that means for us today in the 21st century. I wonder how it connects to the trauma we’re talking about here.

We came home from the grocery store, got dinner ready and baby Cara in her little chair, and prayed for that guy from the grocery store. Because that’s the love and hope that our Savior has for his sheep.

References:

Harlow JM. Recovery from the passage of an iron bar through the head. Publ Mass Med Soc. 1868;2:327–347. []

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