Mind in the Media: How Showtime's Yellowjackets Addresses The Impact of Childhood Trauma

photo of cast of Yellowjackets

Ellen Lindner / Brendan Meadows / Showtime

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the first season of the TV show, Yellowjackets, available on Showtime.

The first season of Showtime's buzzy hit Yellowjackets contains multitudes. There's violence. There's sex. There's drugs. There's a killer '90s soundtrack. There’s also cannibalism and maybe even malevolent supernatural forces at work. But at the core of the addictive series is a story of trauma and survival.

Yellowjackets centers on the title championship high school girls soccer team, whose plane goes down in the middle of nowhere on their way to a national tournament. Stranded, the team has to fend for themselves in the wilderness until they're finally rescued after 19 months.

The story is told across two timelines: one, set in the 1990s, follows the teens as they come of age and fight for their lives in the woods; the other, set in the present day, depicts the lives of four of the adult survivors and how they continue to be impacted by what happened to them 25 years earlier.

While the show unfolds like a tantalizing mystery, it also presents a surprisingly accurate picture of how adults who experience childhood trauma continue to be negatively impacted years later. Of course, Yellowjackets makes some choice embellishments to maximize the intrigue of the narrative, but there is still plenty to learn from the show's adult characters about what it is to live with trauma.

What is Trauma?

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as "an emotional response to a terrible event." The events that trigger trauma can happen once, such as a natural disaster or an act of violence, or can take place multiple times, such as ongoing physical or verbal abuse.

In Yellowjackets, for example, the characters suffer a singular terrifying event when their plane crashes in the wilderness. While this alone would have been enough to traumatize those who lived through the crash, the survivors then experience an intense, ongoing period of trauma during the year and a half they spend isolated in the woods regularly fearing for their lives.

After a traumatic event is experienced, symptoms can include:

  • Intrusive thoughts or memories
  • Hypervigilance
  • Feeling unsafe or paranoid
  • Anger or irritability
  • Emotional numbness
  • Substance use
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble forming healthy relationships
  • Avoidance of thoughts and feelings

While for many people these symptoms are normal but temporary responses to trauma, people who experience trauma in childhood, as the girls in Yellowjackets do, often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adulthood. PTSD is an anxiety issue that some individuals develop after experiencing an extremely traumatic event. Based on what we see on the show, the adult versions of the characters Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Natalie (Juliette Lewis), and Taissa (Tawny Cypress) are all suffering from PTSD.

Symptoms of Trauma in the Adult Characters of Yellowjackets

According to psychotherapist and author Kelley Kitley, LCSW, what's especially realistic about Yellowjackets' depiction of the characters' ongoing responses to the trauma they suffered as teenagers is that it "impacts all of them differently."

girls stand in the woods wearing eye masks

Kailey Shwerman / Showtime

Due to factors such as personality, life experiences, and family history, no two people respond to trauma in exactly the same way. In capturing this, Yellowjackets also illustrates many of the emotional and psychological reactions a trauma survivor may experience.

Hypervigilance, Flashbacks, and Stunted Psychological Growth

When we first meet the adult version of the character Shauna, we learn she has a teenage daughter and is in a long-term marriage. Yet, she seems disconnected from her life. Kitley observes that Shauna's numbness is a symptom of her trauma. "You definitely see that emotional distress," Kitley observes, "that inability to connect on a deeper level other than just being present, but they're not really present, they're just physically there."

Part of the issue for Shauna is that her emotional growth is stunted by her experiences, and as a result, she never matured past the age she was when the Yellowjackets' plane went down. Kitley notes that this is a common result of trauma suffered as a child or teen. On the show, this is a particular challenge for Shauna because she has a daughter who's around the same age as she was when she was traumatized who serves as a reminder of what happened to her during that time in her life.

Kelley Kitley, LCSW

You definitely see that emotional distress...that inability to connect on a deeper level other than just being present, but they're not really present, they're just physically there.

— Kelley Kitley, LCSW

Shauna's inability to grow or move past what happened to her is depicted especially potently in the sequence in which she stabs and kills Adam (Peter Gadiot), the man she'd been having an affair with. The episode depicts events from Shauna's perspective, starting with the paranoia and hypervigilance she's feeling, which leads viewers to become just as suspicious as Shauna that Adam is the one who has been blackmailing her and the other survivors.

Then, when Shauna confronts Adam, she grabs a knife and threatens him with it as her mind flashes back to her time in the wilderness. The memories intrude further and finally overwhelm her until she becomes her younger self and expertly plunges the knife into this individual she now views as a threat.

While certainly most people who have experienced trauma or have PTSD won't hurt anyone, this sequence demonstrates the intrusive memories and flashbacks as well as the hypervigilance that some trauma survivors may suffer from.

Substance Abuse and Difficulties with Emotional Regulation

Of all the adult characters, Natalie may have the most obvious ongoing response to trauma. Part of the reason for this is that she was traumatized before the Yellowjackets' plane crashed. Throughout her childhood, Natalie was abused by her father and saw her mother go through the same thing. Plus, her father died right in front of her after a gun was accidentally discharged.

Natalie's experience of multiple, long-term traumatic events is called complex trauma, and because of it, she had already started turning to drugs and alcohol to cope in high school.

3 girls standing in the woods, one is holding a red solo cup

Paul Sarkis / Showtime

When we meet Natalie as an adult, she's just getting out of rehab due to ongoing substance use problems and has trouble regulating her emotions and forming healthy relationships, issues that are a product of both the complex trauma she experienced throughout her childhood and the trauma she experienced in the wilderness.

And given her background, it's no surprise that adult Natalie continues to turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with the stressful events she experiences during the events of the show. Kitley observes that when Natalie learns fellow survivor Travis has died and she is sent a postcard with a symbol that has something to do with what happened in the wilderness, it leads to "retraumatization, so it brings [her] back to that experience." Kitley believes if Natalie wasn't retraumatized immediately after she left treatment, her chances of staying sober would have been better.

Nonetheless, Natalie is representative of the fact that people with PTSD are far more likely to have a substance use disorder than those without PTSD. And Natalie's long history of trauma only serves to make her problem worse. "It would make sense that the more traumas, the more intense the substance use," Kitley said, "and a lot of people who do have substance use issues do have a history of trauma."

Avoidance and Dissociation

Finally, there's the high-functioning character Taissa who seems to check all the boxes for what we would consider a successful adult life. She has a wife and a young son, an impressive career as a lawyer, and is running in a high-profile campaign for state senate. Yet, as we learn more about her circumstances, it becomes clear all may not be exactly as it seems.

As Kitley points out, "She's very avoidant. She hides behind all her [achievements] with college and law school." While this helps Taissa cope with her PTSD most of the time, the added stress brought about by her political campaign causes her to dissociate, something she also did when she was stranded in the wilderness as a teenager.

teenage girls sit in front of a fire

Kailey Shwerman / Showtime

Dissociation involves experiencing a disconnection between one's identity and one's thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or memories. When Taissa was stranded in the woods she started to sleepwalk and eat dirt, behaviors that she again engages in as an adult as she becomes increasingly anxious. However, it soon becomes clear that Taissa's dissociation in adulthood goes far beyond eating dirt. She paints nasty graffiti on her own house, she steals her sons' favorite toy, and worst of all, she sacrifices the family dog.

Kitley cautions that although dissociation can be a common experience for trauma survivors, Taissa's storyline is embellished for dramatic effect. "I can't believe she would be that high functioning though, and still dissociate that much," Kitley confesses.

Kitley also says that while both Taissa and Shauna are shown to be a physical threat to others due to their history of trauma, this is a fabrication made for television. Instead, Kitley explains that people who suffer from PTSD are at most an emotional threat to those who care about them due to "withdrawing, not being able to emotionally connect, saying things that they regret, being in a really dark place, and being all consumed [by their trauma]."

Why is one character less traumatized than the others?

Of course, fans of Yellowjackets will know that there's one survivor that hasn't been mentioned yet and appears to be unaffected in adulthood by her experiences as a teen in the wilderness. Just like people respond to trauma in different ways, the impact can also vary in severity. However, as both a teenager and adult, the character Misty (Christina Ricci) is shown doing things like drugging people and kidnapping a reporter.

Given that she seems to lack remorse for her actions, Kitley speculates that the character has mental health issues that prevent her from experiencing trauma like the other survivors.

Can the Yellowjackets overcome their trauma?

With the exception of Misty, the adult survivors of Yellowjackets have lived with their trauma for 25 years, and none of them seem to be close to healing. Kitley says there's a simple explanation for this: the survivors made a pact never to discuss what happened in the wilderness, and it appears they never have, even amongst themselves. But suppressing their experiences has only made them more corrosive.

Kelley Kitley much of healing comes from storytelling and being able to share your experience of the traumatic event with somebody, usually a trained professional.

— Kelley Kitley

"Secrecy [is] where trauma lives," Kitley explains, "and so much of healing comes from storytelling and being able to share your experience of the traumatic event with somebody, usually a trained professional." So while the adult Yellowjackets might be able to heal if they shared their story with someone else, keeping quiet prevents them from processing what happened.

Kitley observes that survivors may avoid talking about traumatic events because they don't want to relive them or because they're afraid of being judged. However, it's only through revisiting trauma, ideally with the help of a therapist or counselor, that trauma survivors can self-reflect and learn to own their story.  

By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.