Dr. Tim McKenna-Buchanan
Photo provided by MU

‘We Feel, Therefore We Learn’ VIA Talks Mental Health

Devon Allen

Dr. Tim McKenna-Buchanan hosted the VIA titled “We Feel, Therefore We Learn” on Nov.7. McKenna-Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Honors Director at Manchester University.

McKenna-Buchanan opened up the VIA wonderfully, asking a simple question most people are asked every day, which was “How are you doing today?” While this seems normal, McKenna-Buchanan used the common responses to his advantage, which were things like “good,” which he used to further his topic.

“We are so socialized to say that we are good, but we are not always good,” said McKenna-Buchanan. He mentioned that he took a sabbatical to figure out how to be more trauma-informed after he saw similar instances between his then foster child with his school and students at Manchester. “I see students overwhelmed in my classes all of the time,” he said.

To provide some background information, the VIA focused around the behavioral challenges presented by his adopted child, Alex. Alex is 9 years old and was adopted when he was 3. McKenna-Buchanan described Alex as a “wild child” with some behavioral issues, but is a curious kid who likes to be in charge. He knew that Alex had some behavioral issues because of his experiences as a foster kid. Alex and the McKenna-Buchanans’ other adopted child, Troy, were placed in four families before they were adopted by McKenna-Buchanan and his husband. The boys’ fourth placement ended after Alex got removed from preschool and the family made the decision that they could not handle the kids.

McKenna-Buchanan then shifted the focus to helping the audience to understand what trauma is: “Any negative life event that occurs in a position of relative helplessness” (Scaer 2014). He used this academic definition to help explain the trauma his kids face, which is fight-or-flight, because of how their lives have progressed. Another definition of trauma used by McKenna-Buchanan to help the audience understand was “It’s about being frightened or overwhelmed beyond our capacity to rebound” (Levine 1997).

McKenna-Buchanan then answered the question that may have been on most of the audience’s mind, which was “What happens when we ignore trauma?” He answered with the quote, “Even if we ignore the traumatic experience, our body does not forget” (van der Kolk 2014). McKenna-Buchanan suggested that counseling is also a way to move forward with trauma.

“What do you do when you are stressed or overwhelmed?” he asked rhetorically, along with the question “What would you like your professor to do when you become overwhelmed or are under stress?” McKenna-Buchanan answered himself, saying, “We do not always know when you are stressed as professors, but we can show empathy.”

Alex’s first day of school led to the McKenna-Buchanan family being asked to take him out of school, despite him not struggling academically at all. They decided to keep him in school and within the first six weeks of kindergarten, Alex was suspended for 14 days. McKenna-Buchanan came to a couple of realizations, which were “Why do I have to fight to keep my kid in school?” and “Why are we kicking kids out of school that are troubled the most?” “Kids who are troubled the most are probably kids that need school the most,” he said.

“When you hide your emotions, you are forming trauma,” he continued. He stated that the way we feel influences our ability to learn. Some things he listed as our feelings impacting our performance and learning were: falling asleep in class, being distracted in class, not showing up to class and looking overwhelmed in class.

“Our brains are brilliant,” said McKenna-Buchanan. He said that we can still learn, even if the brain is under stress. To achieve dopamine, which is the reward chemical, we can complete tasks, eat food, participate in self-care and most importantly, celebrate little wins. The mood stabilizer, which is serotonin, can be achieved by meditating, exercising, or sun exposure. Endorphin, which is the painkiller, can be reached by laughing, watching a comedy movie, eating dark chocolate, or also exercising. Oxytocin, the love hormone, can be fulfilled by playing with a dog/child, holding hands, hugging people, or giving a compliment.

“Trauma comes in all sizes and shapes and impacts everyone differently,” said McKenna-Buchanan. He ended the VIA on another positive note, mentioning Alex’s advances with his previous struggles. Alex had to repeat kindergarten because they switched schools to get better support for him. He is now in third grade and becoming a leader. McKenna-Buchanan noted that not every day is great, but that they are always working to get better.

This might be the biggest takeaway from the VIA. As college students, we are always facing obstacles, and it is important to remember that not everything will go our ways, but we should always focus on the positive and work on progressing ourselves still.