Trauma and Tuning Forks

Karen Gross
9 min readSep 28, 2021

What’s a Tuning Fork? It Sounds Simple Enough to Explain

Many of us have heard and even used the term “tuning forks,” but we don’t necessarily know what the term actually means. And the definition is neither simple nor identified within a single field of expertise. Turning forks are used in medicine for a range of diagnoses, including hearing loss and bone fractures. Tuning forks are used in music to insure that the right pitch/tone is achieved. Tuning forks are used by experienced practitioners to help align balance and energy in individuals. Tuning forks are used for non-invasive acoustic therapy. The list goes on and on.

Actual tuning forks differ in size and color and quality and price. Some are weighted on the ends. Some are sold individually; others are sold as sets. They are visually enticing when placed in a stand and viewed as a collective. Try this image:

A Differing Use of the Term Tuning Forks: They are Messengers

I write and think and educate about trauma and its impact on learning and psycho-social development. Sadly, trauma abounds and while the Pandemic is one cause, there are a plethora of others. Just think about racial and ethnic harassment and abuse, shootings and natural disasters. In many corners of our world, there are efforts to ameliorate trauma, and both students and educators can benefit from developing an understanding of and the tools for creating a trauma responsive culture and pedagogy.

It is in this context that I started to reflect on how trauma never goes away. It can be ameliorated for sure (assuming one knows how to do that) but it can also be retriggered. Past events get triggered by a current situation and as a result, folks often have an outsized response that isn’t even vaguely commensurate with what is happening in the present. Yet, we don’t recognize or see or acknowledge the past events that literally pop into our response modalities.

I have also been troubled by the terms we use to describe trauma’s rekindling: “triggering” and “retriggering.” These words seem too tied to weapons and have a negative connotation. The very words are triggering. Instead of these words, I want to suggest we use another term, one that is often loosely used by therapists and trauma experts: tuning forks.

This idea has its roots in physics; so, let me start there.

Physics and Resonance

Resonance in physics describes the phenomena when the vibration of one object sets off the vibration of a previously still object.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41567-019-0458-

As those familiar with physics know (which most assuredly does not include present company), an abnormally large vibration occurs when there is an external stimulus with the same or a similar frequency. This “louder” vibration is termed the resonant frequency of the body (object). Tuning forks are a perfect example of this. Just watch them vibrate.

On a positive note, we use this physics principle to insure stability of circuits; resonance allows for radio frequencies to be received; it enables microwaves to heat food quickly.

Resonance, though, can also cause disasters: bridge and tower collapses and failure of blades and pipes. Think about the opera singer who can break a glass with her signing voice; it occurs when her vocal frequency hits the same frequency as the glass. I’ve always wondered why that happens.

Now, consider the application of this physics’ principle to what happens in the context of trauma. When a current trauma occurs, it “resonates” just as described in physics. It “hits” an inanimate trauma that sits in our head (or in a cabinet in our heads). When the “hit” occurs, the sitting trauma gets activated and it is a “loud” activation. (Hit is another word that is bothersome.)

One can, using the tuning fork as a symbol or exemplar, say that current trauma activates our internal tuning fork and creates vibrations rooted in the previous trauma (that operate on the same or a similar frequency). Thus, we can say that current trauma activates our tuning fork. Setting off our tuning fork can be the terminology we use when we have an outsized response that seems inexplicable to those witnessing it and even to the person experiencing it.

Applying the Tuning Fork Nomenclature

To see how this works, let me give concrete examples from my own life — both from my past and more recently. As just described, what happens is that a current event occurs (and this event commonly differs from person to person except in the context of a mass calamity or disaster); then this occurrence sets off a tuning fork in one’s head and that sends off strong vibrations (sounds; emotions; moods; feelings).

Consider the Pandemic and then the 9/11 Twentieth Anniversary. For some people, the Pandemic and accompanying deaths tripped off a reaction tied to 9/11. So, the recent 9/11 Anniversary produced an outsized response in some. The anniversary was traumatic but what caused the response was the “resonance,” the tripping off of the vibrations from the original 9/11 events because of the Pandemic and deaths.

A personal example: I worked close to the former Twin Towers and when they fell, I watched the second one go down with students and saw the shadow of the dust that rose in the shape of the just fallen and earlier fallen towers. I could not return to the site and avoided walking nearby. I had a permanent video in my head. I only walked uptown from my school, never downtown.

Then, one day a year or so later, I was walking downtown to a meeting near but not at the 9/11 site. I happened to call my terrific library researcher about a current project as I was walking and as I spoke, he suddenly said, “Are you alright? You sound out of breath. Are you ill? Are you having an attack?”

I was totally unaware that I sounded differently. And his observations were spot on. My physical location tripped off the feelings and memories of 9/11 including my physical response. And back those autonomic nervous system responses came a year later — unannounced and initially unrecognized by me.

I stopped walking. I started to slow my breath. I thanked my research assistant and assured him I was OK physically. And, I realized, as I looked at where I was and what was right in my sight lines, why my body was shaking and my breathing changed.

A tuning fork incident.

Some months ago, I received an email from my romantic partner suggesting that I could, if it was easier, delay my arrival time at his home to later that evening or the next morning, given my teaching schedule. It was one of my first visits to his home. I had an immediate visceral reaction: My visit must not matter to him if he is willing to postpone my arrival. I was mad. I had worked so hard to arrange an on time arrival given my work schedule. I wanted to arrive in time to teach from his home. I had wanted to arrive and settle in comfortably. And, I wanted to feel welcomed.

I expressed my anger, saying he must not care. He must be unaware, I thought, of my efforts. It was an outsized response for sure and he was taken aback. His thoughts to himself I later learned were these: I was trying to help but apparently, I didn’t. Why are you (Karen) so so mad over my effort to make life easier for you, he said to himself and later suggested to me. And, he immediately got into his car and came to my home to sort things out. (That’s a good start and a remarkably good partner.)

By the time he arrived. I had figured out what tuning fork he hit. Basically, it wasn’t easy for me to go to his home because in my youth, I entered a home often where I was not welcomed — my own home. My stepfather and mother seemed to ignore that I didn’t feel at home — at home. And, my stepfather’s efforts to make me feel comfortable aggravated my biological mother (jealousy) and we had quite the triangle going. I would try to please my stepfather and placate my mother and I ended up not pleasing either. So, going to my romantic partner’s home where he lived with his son and where he had lived with his late wife set up a triangle (partner/late wife-son/me) that for me felt like my past (of which he was only partially aware at the time), and I experienced his message as suggesting I was not welcome.

Thus the outsized reaction. Thus the tuning fork.

Here’s the Messenger Quality of Tuning Forks

When we have outsized reactions, it is messaging to us that something beyond the current event is occurring within us. And, even if we do not know what is tipping off the tuning fork, we would be wise to recognize that something in our past is now literally and figuratively moving and it is sending strongly felt reactions.

We may be slower to decipher the reason for the outsized response (not an overreaction as it is rooted in trauma and not intentional) but when it occurs, we can pause and reflect and consider what is actually bothering us. Just breathing slowly starts that process.

Now, I want to do more than replace the words “retrigger” and “retriggering” with references to tuning forks. I want us actually to create tuning forks as a form of recognition and have them sit on our desks or tables as reminders of their power. Yes, we can buy tuning forks (my partner and I got a gorgeous set in a wooden stand that serves as a reminder of the just described incident in his home on a window sill and knowing they are there provides me with calm and peace).

Or, we can make tuning forks which allow us to process as we create. Here’s how.

Consider getting a fork of any size. Plastic forks will do. Then, get a sheet of music with notes and words. You can print it off from online easily. Then, wrap all or part of the fork in the notes, gluing the music to the fork. It creates a tuning (as in music) fork — in sort of a symbolic way. And, one has a “musical fork” that raises notes and sends out sounds and messages. We’d be wise to understand our forks and if we can remember they exist, that helps.

To be sure, one can display or paint tuning forks (see above images) and one can hang them or sit them on a table as reminders. I created one such painting but couldn’t initially see all the tuning forks. Indeed, for me, they were initially hidden until I turned the painting on its side and saw the plethora of white tuning forks. Perhaps I was reluctant to acknowledge how many tuning forks I have. See the painting below and turn it on its side. Hum. How could I have missed the many white forks?

Words Matter

Words matter. Our choice of words matter. Educators, medical professionals, social workers and all others who work in the service field: think about the term “tuning forks.” It may help you help others when you see an outsized response. It may help you when you seem to have an enormous reaction to something that doesn’t seem, at least on the surface, to be all that horrific or monumental.

Think “tuning forks.” Make tuning forks. Reflect on tuning forks. Look at tuning forks. Paint tuning forks. They might provide a way to understand how we are navigating forward in these difficult Pandemic and traumatic times and provide us with some understanding of ourselves and others.

We don’t have much to lose and we have lots to gain from tuning in to our tuning forks.

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Karen Gross

Author, Educator, Artist & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor