Trauma

3 Pillars & Principles of a Trauma-Informed Approach

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You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz around being trauma-informed. It’s a term that’s being embraced by organizations that are actively seeking out ways to ensure their programming and services fit the label. This means they are engaging in the following pillars of trauma-informed care.

 

What Is Trauma-Informed Care?

This approach to care is built on an understanding that trauma is prevalent, and that it has common impacts. Trauma can influence how people respond to situations, especially those that cause us to feel more vulnerable. For example, someone might struggle or react when others make decisions for them or when their boundaries are pushed.

Trauma can influence how people respond to situations, especially those that cause us to feel more vulnerable.

The full story of a person’s trauma doesn’t need to be known – rather, practicing trauma-informed care means understanding that protective behaviours make sense when trauma is in the background. Here are three ways you can practice being more trauma-informed:

  • Build your awareness of the prevalence of trauma, and how common it is for all people.  Learn about different kinds of trauma and how the impact can linger.  
  • Learn to recognize 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.
  • Increase your engagement by taking steps to avoid retraumatizing people while supporting healing from past traumatic experiences.

Signs of a Trauma Response

A trauma-informed approach is relevant for any setting because the impact of trauma can show up in people’s daily lives more often than is typically recognized. What follows 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 help her get 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 – he reacts by staring blankly without moving. Can Don’s friend understand that the recent experience of evacuating his home due to a forest fire causes him to freeze 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 retraumatized, which often means their actions are misinterpreted by those around them.

A trauma-informed approach is relevant for any setting because the impact of trauma can show up in people’s daily lives more often than is typically recognized.

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 judgement to curiosity and ask ourselves, I wonder what happened to this person? This will help us to see that these kinds of reactions often make sense when we know that someone has a background of trauma. Our active steps of support can transform this interaction into an experience of reparative connection and healing.

In order to be trauma-informed, we must shift our judgement to curiosity and ask ourselves, I wonder what happened to this person?

 

Key Principles of a Trauma-Informed Approach

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: Central to trauma-informed care is creating the possibility for increased safety. We can’t make someone feel safe, but we can be a safer person. Thoughtful use of our words and body language goes a long way to conveying respect, calmness, and an open, patient acceptance of the other person.
  • Trust: Similar to building safety, we need to act in a trustworthy manner. How we respond both verbally and nonverbally matters. People who carry traumatic impact are very sensitive to how you receive them. To strengthen our own trauma -informed perspective, 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: Central in the impact of trauma is a feeling of helplessness and less power. Trauma-informed care creates opportunities for empowerment and choice. Make sure 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.
  • Voice: One way to alleviate feelings of helplessness is to provide opportunities for the person to engage and have more agency in what happens to them in any given situation. Ask people for their opinions and proactively encourage questions. Using their voice not only shifts the feeling of the interaction for them – it allows us to offer better and more relevant care.
  • Strengths and Resilience: Recognize the person’s unique strengths and resilience. 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 acknowledge the inherent strengths in their story.

When we embrace these guidelines for how we interact with people, we can contribute to increased health and well-being for everyone. Being trauma-informed not only has a positive effect on those we help and support – it also makes each of us better at what we do, and more effective when helping others.

 


For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.  Print out a copy of our free 3 Go-To Elements of a Trauma-Informed Workplace handout. 

Author

Vicki Enns

MMFT, RMFT

Vicki is the editor and co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights – Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. This book is available on our website.

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© CTRI Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute (www.ctrinstitute.com)
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