Episode #10: Making Sense of Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress

Welcome to the Stronger Families Podcast, a space for candid conversations with real heroes that sheds light on the side of things not glorified in the media. In each episode, we learn about what goes on when these heroes go home, so that together we can build a stronger family. Today, Noel Meador, host and CEO of Stronger Families, interviews Matt Quackenbush about making sense of trauma and post traumatic stress disorder.

To begin, Matt defines trauma as “An event that overwhelms the central nervous system that alters you,” according to Bessel van der Kolk, author of Body Keeps the Score. Matt says people will always face difficult events in their lives, but trauma are events that are painful, difficult and stress inducing alters our central nervous system and forever changes us. These events can be small, but must be personal. Trauma has a bad rep, but these moments are where we have the opportunity to learn about reality. Painful moments are designed to be something to teach, change and motivate us to grow.

Next, Matt shares his background and his profession as the Director of Training and Education at Deer Hollow. He also started the First Watch Wellness company, which is a proactive company for first responders. He also founded a private company called Finding Strength which is created to help people find strength in their mental journeys. In addition to creating a podcast, Matt is in school obtaining a PHD in psychology and researching how PTSD affects first responders. His practices are research-based, not just experience based. He knows what is actually working and changing peoples’ lives.

To qualify for a diagnosis for PTSD, you must experience a large scale traumatic event where you are significantly affected. A person’s affected state needs to be evidenced through lack of sleep, pain, etc. and the symptoms need to keep occuring for 30 days. This needs to occur just to qualify for a diagnosis. However, post traumatic stress injury is when the brain is altered due to acute events, or only one event. Chronic trauma is trauma that is repeated and prolonged. Complex trauma has an interpersonal function to it. Sensations around that traumatic event can help you recall the event. Events that happened to you as a child and how you were raised affect you as an adult. When you are young, you must adapt and get back to normal functioning pretty easily. Acute events motivate disconnection and isolation. The number one problem in the first responder community is isolation, and the number one solution is connection.

We are designed to adapt to our environments and children adapt very easily to the events that happened to them. However, the earlier the software is written, the more influential it is on the system. When children go through traumatic events, it is written into their nervous system and affects how they perceive the world and how they view every experience of their life.  What we perceived as children was very important and necessary to keep us alive, but it is not close to how the world really works. We have to go back and question what happened to us and how we dealt with it. All of these things get better after childhood trauma therapy and Matt has seen incredible growth in himself after going through it.

Next, Matt explains that trauma occurs in the central nervous system. There are three main parts of your brain and trauma occurs in the midbrain, which is your survival brain. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) assesses danger and threat using the brain to scan the senses, and combined, this is your sensory perspective experience. You are constantly looking for any reminders of past trauma. As soon as your brain sees something, it sends the signal which causes your adrenaline and sugar to increase. Your body becomes acidic and gets an increase in energy which is designed for you to move. If you can’t fight or flee, then you have to have an adapted response that allows you to still survive. This creates a dorsal vagal response (DVR) which makes us numbed out in a dissociated state. To combat this, you need to check back in with yourself through movement, breath and social engagement. The biggest tool is the ability to be mindful and observant of your own state. If you’re aware, you can come out of those states to get back to the regular state. We’re taught to chill out or turn to avoiding/numbing agents when we’re overwhelmed. We turn to our phones, food, cigarettes, alcohol, control, anger, etc. The best thing to do when you’re overwhelmed is to connect to the feeling and recenter yourself back to your normal state.

Window of tolerance explains what goes on in your body. There is an upstate, downstate and a regular window of tolerance state. The more aware you are, the more you can widen your window of tolerance. If we are regularly exposed to stress, that narrows our window of tolerance making us go easily into hyper and hypo tolerance. Stress is your body communicating to you to pay attention. There is also a high risk of suicide idolization. The rates of depression among fire fighters is 5 times higher, which means 500% more likely to develop PTSD than the general population. They found that the most effective intervention to reduce all these things is talking to other first responders who are not directly linked to you in your department. We need community style groups where people can go, talk and connect with each other. We also need to openly say that people died by suicide and not become numb to people killing themselves. Our culture is breeding disconnection and isolation, which is leading to this increased risk in mental health and suicides.

In addition to the problems, Matt shares what people can do to find relief and solutions. He says the first thing is to become self aware and to evaluate your mindfulness. Breathing methods like 4 breaths in, 6 out can help people get back to their normal state. He also shares that it is important to get your cortisol spike up early in the day, so his morning routine is to immediately get out of bed when the alarm goes off, make the bed and then do 10-20 pushups. Creating a cortisol peak early in the day helps people not crash mid afternoon, and instead they fall asleep much faster at night. Trauma will not work unless you have baseline stress management skill sets. The more regulated and primed your nervous system is, the better your results are. It is a combined effort of healing, but they are trying to reform the way people view their experiences. Matt shares that the singular way to combat hopelessness is love and human connection.

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0:43 – Host Noel introduces and welcomes guest, Matt Quackenbush.

3:04 –  What is trauma?

6:06 – Matt’s background and profession.

8:02 – Qualifying for a PTSD diagnosis and post traumatic stress injury.

14:29 – Where trauma occurs in the body.

23:02 – The theory “the window of tolerance.”

28:43 – High risk of suicide idolation and increased risk in firefighters.

34:25 – What to do if you are struggling with depression or other mental issues.

41:26 – Baseline stress management skill sets.

46:03 – What Matt would say to people who feel hopeless.

52:37 – Noel and Matt’s final thoughts on the episode today.


Learn more about Stronger Families and Heroes at Home.

Learn more about Finding Strength.

Learn more about First Watch Wellness.

Learn more about Deer Hollow.

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