You have probably heard a lot of buzz around being trauma-informed as it’s a term that is becoming increasingly embraced. Many organizations are actively seeking out ways to ensure their programming and services are fit for this label, which means they are engaging in the following pillars of trauma-informed care:
- Awareness of the prevalence of trauma, and how common it is for all people.
- Recognition of the signs of traumatic impact and how the survival stances of fight, flight, or freeze may show up in the people they serve, support, or work with.
- Engagement in taking steps to avoid re-traumatizing people while supporting healing from past traumatic experiences.
A trauma-informed approach is relevant for any setting because the impact of trauma can show up in people’s day to day lives more often than is typically recognized, and in a variety of different ways. The following are three examples to help you recognize the fight, flight, or freeze responses a trauma-effected person may experience:
- Fight: Becky snaps angrily at a nurse who is trying to assist her with getting out of the hospital bed and into a wheelchair. Should the nurse see this as an anger problem, or a fight reaction based on Becky’s past experiences of physical violence in an abusive relationship?
- Flight: Joshua suddenly runs out of the classroom after the teacher asks him to come to the front of the class to read his essay that earned him an A. Can the teacher understand this as a trauma reaction instead of an act of avoidance or defiance? Does the teacher recognize that Joshua has been teased and bullied for his lisp, and that the thought of speaking in front of the class causes him to go into full flight mode?
- Freeze: Don is out with a colleague having coffee when the fire alarm unexpectedly goes off – Don reacts by staring blankly without moving. Can his friend understand that Don’s recent experience of evacuating his home due to a forest fire renders him overwhelmed and frozen when he hears the fire alarm?
These situations are all possible examples of a trauma response that can be triggered out of context. They make the person susceptible to feeling overwhelmed and re-traumatized, which often means their actions are misinterpreted by those around them. For example, people may wonder or ask the person, “What’s wrong with you?” However, this type of question renders judgement, punishment, or coercion, rather than empathy and understanding. This can add to the previous impact of trauma, and leave the person feeling more alone and helpless in their experience.
In order to be trauma-informed, we must shift our judgment to curiosity and ask, “I wonder what happened to this person?” This will allow us to see that these kinds of reactions often make sense when we know someone has a background of trauma. Our active steps of support can transform this interaction into an experience of reparative connection and healing.
Whether we know if someone has a history of trauma or not, there are key principles we can follow to ensure the way we interact and offer our services embodies a trauma-informed approach:
- Safety and Trust. Offer your support using words and body language that convey respect, calmness, and an open, patient acceptance of the other person. Ask yourself, “How could this behaviour make sense as a reaction to past trauma?” and “What might this person need to avoid reliving their trauma in the future?”
- Choice and Voice. Ensure the person has all the necessary information for any decisions they are being asked to make. As much as possible, let people choose what happens to them, or choose their own pacing for how to move forward. Ask for their opinions and proactively encourage questions.
- Strengths and Resilience. Recognize the unique strengths and resilience in the person. Practice seeing that all behaviours are adaptive in the right context. For example, explain how fight, flight, or freeze reactions are sometimes the best responses for survival in the face of an actual threat. Recognize that the person has survived past trauma, and therefore they have strengths to harness. Validate them and be curious about acknowledging the strengths inherent in the person’s story.
When we embrace these guidelines for how we do our jobs, and how we interact with people in general, we can contribute to increased health and well-being for all people. Being trauma-informed not only has a positive effect on those we help and support, it will also make each of us better at what we do, and more effective in our work overall.
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