What is Trauma?
Trauma is the impact that certain events can leave with a person – a wound they carry with them after they have been through something awful. This can be the result of a single event (such as an accident) or a series of events (such as repeated abuse.) A traumatic event, or series of events, can dramatically impact the way people see themselves or the world. They may see themselves as damaged, broken, without hope. They may now see the world as a dangerous place where they can never feel safe. All of these emotions can lead to psychiatric symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and even psychotic symptoms (hearing voices, delusional beliefs.)
Certain populations are more susceptible to experiencing trauma – those that are already vulnerable. Members of oppressed and marginalized groups including people with a mental health concerns, members of the LGBT community, racial minorities or people with disabilities are more likely to experience trauma. A person might experience more lasting effects from a traumatic event if they believe that during the event they are going to die, are trapped and cannot get out, or if they feel helpless or hopeless. Without proper supports (professional, medical, legal, family, etc.) after an event, the person may have more difficulty working through their emotions.
People who have experienced trauma may at times be triggered into feeling as if the traumatic event is happening all over again. A trigger can be something like smelling the rapist’s cologne, turning through the same intersection where your accident took place, or hearing a voice that sounds like your abuser. They simply cannot get away from it, the reminders keep coming, and relive it every day. Their body feels the same effects as they felt during the event – that racing heart, sweaty palms, shallow breathing panic feeling – that “fight or flight” response.
Trauma is often linked with addiction. With the emotional pain of past trauma comes the urge to numb that pain, and escape it at any cost. For many, drugs or alcohol provide a very temporary relief. It provides a quick, but very short-term fix, that isn’t healthy and sustainable longer term. Yes, using drugs can allow a person to escape their pain for a few brief moments, but it can cause other aspects of life to deteriorate – running out of money, trouble with the law, fights with family, severe physical effects, all of which mean that they cannot keep up this lifestyle for long. Hopefully, people get the support they need to find other ways to cope with their pain, but sadly, many do not. If a person wants to move forward and participate in living their life rather than avoiding it, they need to address the underlying issue that’s causing them to feel so much pain. When we look at the source of addiction as seeking to numb or escape pain, it becomes easier to understand why, in those low moments of suffering, someone sees drug or alcohol as a viable option. The more we understand someone’s difficult past, the easier their current behaviours are to understand, and the hope is that they can get the help they need to find healthier coping strategies.
It is important to remember that trauma is not the event, but the subsequent wound that the person carries with them; the lasting impact it has on their thoughts, feelings and actions.
Working with people who have experienced trauma – being trauma informed.
Some people may not have had the opportunity, support, or time to move on from their past traumas. We, as clinicians, may be the first person to hear their story. We should use this opportunity to validate the emotions they have about the event, and to help them to understand that some of the feelings, thoughts and behaviours they have now, are connected to what they have experienced. We can also then help them to decide if they want to pursue working on some of the lasting effects of their trauma through accessing trauma-based services.
If we want to take a holistic look at the lives of our clients, we need to look at their whole life experience, not just the here and now. If we treat trauma like a universal precaution, then we can assume that individuals have been affected by trauma, whether or not it has been disclosed. We must start asking people what has happened to them rather than ask them what is wrong with them. From there, we can look at asking them how they managed to get through it, with a focus on their personal strengths. A focus on recovery is a focus on resiliency.
A trauma-informed agency shifts its culture to recognize that trauma is prevalent, the impacts are devastating, and that people are going to recover from it in unique and different ways. There is no one way to “get over” your past trauma; we have to support people to find the path that is going to work best for them.
This support is provided in different ways:
Active listening: Listen to the story that someone has to tell. Be open, give them time, and let them finish. You might be the first opportunity someone has had to share what they have been through, and you want to give them the chance to say what needs to be said.
Validating emotions: Let people express not only the story but how it made them feel. Seek to understand the impact that it continues to have on their life today. Provide validation by letting them know that it makes sense that they do certain things like use drugs and alcohol, have fears, or feel depressed given the awful experience they have had. Allow yourself to express genuine emotion: it is alright to be shocked and upset if someone describes a truly awful experience to you.
Avoiding the urge to “fix” a situation: We are all working in this field because we want to help people, and we often feel the urge to jump to a resolution. This isn’t always helpful. Telling someone “don’t feel sad” or “try to forget it” is probably not going to get the desired results.
Working from a strengths-based perspective: Ask people how they have managed to get this far and how they are still here after going through such an awful experience. Remind them of their own strength and help them to remember this as a tool to cope in the future.
Help people get connected to the resources that they need: If someone is experiencing certain symptoms, they may benefit from different supports from trauma-based services. Help them to explore their options, and what might be a good fit to alleviate the troubles they continue to face.