I will never forget the first time I stepped through the turnstiles and into an amusement park. It wasn’t Six Flags or Universal Studios. It wasn’t Disneyland, Disney World, or some other Magic Kingdom experience. It was a local spot where the rides were just a little bigger than those at a state or county fair.

On that hot summer day the excitement to be above the “must be this tall to ride” line brought this 10-year-old huge anticipation. I remember slowly weaving through the gates and the long line of people to my first ride. The clink-clink-clink of the lap bar coming down across my legs to safely secure me in my seat. And the click-clack-click sound of the classic wooden roller coaster as it climbed the first hill — which was immediately followed by a rush of other feelings as we crested the top and began our descent.

I came off that roller coaster with all sorts of feelings and started toward the next ride. As I walked, I crossed through the infamous “splash zone” that accompanies the flume ride. The whooshing sound of the log descending into water brought the response of a splash, mixed with screams (some of delight and others likely from the shock of the cold water hitting their bodies). Water rained down on my siblings, my friends, and me. And the mist cloud that hung gently in the air left us all to process how the wetness made us feel. I remember seeing a mix of emotions on the faces of those in the log. Two were smiling; one was comforting another who was in tears. I’ll never forget observing that moment before I slid into the log myself, curious as to what I might feel.

This illustration can help us process the perceived impact that trauma-related experiences can have on our lives versus the reality of where we might be sitting.

Despite the belief that trauma has to be associated with a big bad event, it’s deeply rooted in our biology. Threats in the environment around us — whether real or perceived — bring on changes in the body’s hormones and biochemistry. These changes can lead to particular and predictable shifts in behavior, emotions, and thinking (Rojo Aubrey & Rhoton, 2022).

Imagine this: during a staff training exercise, you’re asked to go to one of four corners of a room, pavilion, or field based on where you’d prefer to sit within the log while on this ride.

  • The first corner is for those who would sit in the front of the log.
  • In corner two will be those who would prefer the middle.
  • The third corner is for individuals who would prefer to sit in the back.
  • The last corner is for those who’d prefer merely to observe and not to ride at all.

Everyone gets to choose.

All of this is important to consider when processing how one’s nervous system interprets something as threatening. Whether real or perceived, individuals respond physiologically to trauma as if it were real. Trauma, being what happens when someone has an experience that overwhelms their nervous system and ability to cope, is important for us to consider as we all come to camp with varying perspectives each summer.

More than 223.4 million American youth and adults have experienced trauma due to:

  • Proximal and ongoing exposure to religious polarization
  • Cultural war
  • Battles for land
  • Climate change
  • Health-related pandemics (National Council for Behavioral Health, 2022)

This means you can look to your left or right and know that you are not alone in the perceived exposure to trauma or in actually trying to decipher how to best proceed as a direct result of it in your life.

Once we choose the space where we’d sit within the log, it’s important to stop and consider why we chose to sit there. We each have a perspective, and the logic, thinking, and various considerations people have when they decide where to place themselves is fascinating.

You don’t determine whether something is objectively traumatic with your rational thoughts; your body decides this for you. If your nervous system interprets something to be traumatic, it will respond accordingly. This is trauma. So, when you ask yourself if you’ve been marked by trauma, know that trauma is how your body reacts to perceived or real threats, as well as to those around you (Van Der Kolk, 2015).

In the book The Awakened Brain, Lisa Miller, PhD, explains that “our brains have two attentional networks — dorsal and ventral. These networks interact with each other in a dynamic way.” The dorsal attention network is our top-down attention; and it filters incoming sensory and perceptual information which allows us to remain focused on the task at hand, while filtering out unintentional information. This is different from that of the ventral attention network where we receive sudden breakthroughs, clear thoughts where we recognize transcendent flashes of clarity or deeper insight (Miller, 2021).

When trauma arises we commonly focus on the question “What happened?” This question has connections to five broad therapy categories:

  • Psychoanalysis
  • Behavior
  • Cognitive
  • Humanistic
  • Integrative

Each of these approaches to psychotherapy helps guide psychologists through the process of understanding clients and their problems in an effort to develop solutions (American Psychological Association, 2024).

Although knowing what happened is important — as the American Camp Association and Alliance for Camp Health’s collaborative CampWell training, supported by the H.E. Butt Foundation, suggests — our ability to provide support and care is our priority while at camp. We can leave the long-term healing work to the trained professionals as we work from the present, holding space for the splash zone to inform our shared future.

Cultural Trauma

Although culture-based, global trauma has not been validated within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), the National Library for Medicine acknowledges cultural trauma as an overwhelming and often ongoing physical or psychological assault or stressor perpetuated by an oppressive dominant group on the culture of a group of people sharing a specific identity/affiliation (e.g., race/ethnicity, nationality, religion) (Subica & Link, 2023). We can look at the headlines of what’s taken place in Russia and Ukraine or Israel and Palestine to understand the significance this has played in the trauma we’ve all faced in the last year. We’ve been marked whether by a proximal reality or from the perceived threat of something impacting someone we know.

We differentiate cultural trauma from prior definitions or conceptualizations of collective and historical traumas by centering the focus and impact of the traumatic event on a group’s resources as opposed to their psychological or physical well-being. Regardless, the splash from it all may generate lasting health disparities that impact future generations not exposed to the original cultural violence/assault, and this fact, rightfully so, weighs on our minds within the space we know as camp.

In a time where secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout are at an all-time high for those in direct service roles or vocations, it’s important to process how we consider vicarious trauma by asking a couple of key questions. Are you being affected by someone else’s trauma? Can you still be properly debriefed if you don’t give all the graphic details of the trauma story you have just heard from a participant or fellow staff member?

Sharing Considerations

According to Mathieu (2021), Low Impact Debriefing (LID) is a trauma-informed technique for sharing and processing the difficult stories and images that we encounter in our work.

In order to not dump your trauma on someone else or create a different splash experience, consider the following:

  • Self-awareness — Be aware of the stories you tell and the level of detail you provide.
  • Fair warning — Warn your listener that the content you are going to share is disturbing or traumatic.
  • Consent — Seek permission by asking, “Is this a good time?” or “I heard something really hard today; could I talk to you about it?”
  • Limited disclosure — Decide how much to share. Start with the least-disturbing details and gradually add more information as needed.

The moment I felt a small mist of water splash my face and my friend in front of me was soaked, it all became clear. I sat in the wrong seat. At least from my perspective. I wanted to be the one dripping in water. It was a hot day.

One time when I was facilitating this exercise, I had a group of people who were in the corner for those who preferred sitting in the back of the log. They were locked in a debate. Because even though they all preferred the perspective from the back, a couple of them felt it was where they could have the best water experience, while others felt it was where they could stay dry. Which is even more fascinating because people who sit in the front often think the same thing.

“The front is where the water goes right over me,” someone will say.

“No, the front is where you can have the biggest rush,” another might argue.

Regardless, the expectation versus the experience and the reality of it is always left up for interpretation in some regard by the person in the seat. If someone’s preference were to never ride the log at all, then even the sensation of the smallest amount of mist touching their skin could be overwhelming. It is worth taking space to understand their perspective.

We must acknowledge the space needed to process knowing that we could hear three different or similar responses from everyone in the same boat, depending on how their nervous systems respond and based on what they were anticipating when they planned where they would sit.

  • “I got wet!”
  • “That was fun.”
  • “Is anyone else soaked?”
  • “I am cold!”
  • “I enjoyed myself.”
  • “That sucked.”
  • “Well, that was a ride.”

What work do we need to do on our own trauma in our perspective in order to truly be for the people we want to care for? How do we expand the circle of human concern without being overwhelmed by it? How do we expand the reach of our empathy?

We must consider our goal as we head into the summer. Think about how we can help to humanize and hold space for healing for those who are struggling with trauma.

This summer you will participate in and create space for others to process a collective outlook on our shared future. My challenge to you, regardless of where you may sit, is to hold space, considering the impact of the symbolic splash zone in your life and your potential to douse someone else with overly descriptive words from your story.

May the work we do be expanded by joining with the natural world as a companion and collaborator. Are we curious enough about how we hold climate and historic, culture-related trauma that is layered and nuanced to make the necessary change? Are we willing to change to a new type of care — one that is dependent on the life of all living things and allows us to exercise both attention and intention to enable us to adapt and to confront our grief, trauma, or loss?

Photos courtesy of Camp Friendship, Palmyra, VA; Pine Ridge Day Camp, Decatur, AL.


American Psychological Association. (2024). Different approaches to psychotherapy. apa.org/topics/psychotherapy/approaches

Mathieu, F. (2020). Coming home to secondary traumatic stress: The impact of trauma-exposed work on our loved ones. TEND Toolkit. tendtoolkit.com/coming-home-to-sts/

Miller, L. (2021). The awakened brain. New York, NY: Random House.

Phelan, J. C., Link, B. G., & Tehranifar, P. (2010). Social conditions as fundamental causes of health inequalities: theory, evidence, and policy implications. J. Health Soc. Behavior 51 (1_Suppl. 1), S28–S40. 10.1177/0022146510383498.

Rojo Aubrey, T. E. & Rhoton. R. (2022). The science of trauma and recovery: Treatment for survivors. Livonia, MI: XanEdu Publishing.

Subica, A. & Link, B. (2022). How to manage trauma. National Council for Behavioral Health. thenationalcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Trauma-infographic.pdf

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

John Hamilton, MA, is the chief strategy officer for the Alliance for Camp Health (ACH), founder of the Outdoor Wellbeing Lab, and ACA’s subject matter expert on trauma-informed care at camp. Prior to joining ACH leadership, he served as the national director for Camp HOPE America, where he collaborated with city/county government, national leaders, clinicians, psychologists, and community-based organizations. John is also a former executive director of a camp near Lake Tahoe.