Trauma

Supporting Those Affected by Situational Trauma

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Situational trauma refers to isolated incidents and traumatic events that are relatively short lived (also referred to as Type I trauma). This is set against more complex and repetitive traumatic experiences (also referred to as Type II trauma), which often involve interpersonal elements like physical abuse, sexual abuse, or cumulative relationship losses.

It is more often the case that childhood developmental trauma contributes to a pattern of complex, repetitive trauma.

Traumatic experiences that occur during the early years of life can be either situational (if a single incident) or complex (if repetitive). Because of the ongoing development of the person at the time, these earlier experiences tend to leave that individual more vulnerable to later trauma. Therefore, it is more often the case that childhood developmental trauma contributes to a pattern of complex, repetitive trauma.

Is your client’s trauma situational or complex?

To distinguish between situational and complex trauma, we can consider whether there is a memory or memories related to the same situation (Type I or situational trauma), or whether there is a complex history of trauma that often begins in childhood or continues over a period of a person’s life and requires attention to repeated traumatic experiences (Type II and developmental trauma).

Traumatic experience throughout the lifetime is very prevalent, and the majority of these experiences are related to single-incident or situational traumas.

Single incidents of accidental injury requiring hospital admission are one of the most common trauma occurrences in childhood. For adults, the most common types of situational trauma are motor vehicle accidents, workplace incidents, and physical assaults.

Because of the varying experiences of trauma, we cannot assume that one type of trauma has an inherently greater impact on individuals than another.

Because of the varying experiences of trauma, we cannot assume that one type of trauma has an inherently greater impact on individuals than another. In my practice, working with people who have experienced both situational and complex, developmental trauma, I have seen that the impact varies much more by the individual than by the type of traumatic experience.

How can you support people affected by situational trauma?

In my work with clients who have experienced situational trauma, I have learned that a holistic approach to trauma is best. There is no static model to trauma work that is effective for all clients, which means that we, as counsellors, have to come to the work with mindfulness towards client safety and with knowledge and skills that we can adapt to suit a client’s needs.

Trauma work must be done with careful attention to developing tools to assist in stabilization and self-regulation before processing traumatic memories.

Because the experience of trauma is often overwhelming and can impact all aspects of a person, trauma work must be done with careful attention to developing tools to assist in stabilization and self-regulation before processing traumatic memories. I hold the following principles as especially helpful when helping those who have experienced situational trauma:

01 | Establish the brain, body, and mind connection.

Use a holistic view to understand the impact of trauma and the potential for healing.

The brain, body, and mind are connected, and so a change in one area has ripple effects through the whole system. Consider the act of bumping your elbow on a hard table edge: your brain sends a message to alert your elbow of the pain and potential injury, your body feels the pain of the incident, and your mind may be flooded with an emotion – such as frustration – and a thought about the event.

This process occurs through the brain-body-mind connection for all experiences of emotional and physical pain. Practicing from a stance that recognizes the interconnected nature of the brain, body, and mind is important in all areas of counselling, but especially in trauma work.

02 | Follow a phased approach to ensure that the work is not overwhelming.

Working through trauma follows three distinct phases: (1) history and stabilization; (2) processing traumatic memories; and (3) meaning making and resilience from trauma. Weaving the first principle of attending to brain-body-mind interconnection into each stage allows us to offer more effective support in this difficult work.

Phase one: History and stabilization

Slowly and carefully build a solid foundation for the rest of the work.

Phase two: Process traumatic memories

Stabilize and work through traumatic memories.

Phase three: Meaning-making and resilience

Re-insert the trauma into a full life story that has a past, present, and future.

Trauma work can feel heavy. It takes a toll on our own well-being to be emotionally attuned to the traumatic experiences of others. Despite the potential to be exhausting, it is also rewarding to offer assistance. Traumatic experiences are not doomed to be long lasting in their impact. There is always potential for growth and recovery.

My continued passion for this work comes from the notion of post-traumatic growth. Drawing on the writing of Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995), post-traumatic growth is a benefit of surviving trauma. Recovery from trauma offers the opportunities to strengthen one’s sense of self, to have a greater openness to possibilities in life, to develop stronger relationships with friends and family, to have a greater appreciation for life, and to maintain a stronger sense of spirituality.

Traumatic experiences are not doomed to be long lasting in their impact. There is always potential for growth and recovery.

Overall, the growth offered through the recovery from trauma offers an opportunity to experience oneself and one’s personal relationships in new ways. Doing efficacious and compassionate trauma counselling provides the opportunity to see recovery from situational trauma and to find meaning in the helping role.


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Author

AnnMarie Churchill

PhD, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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