Back in 2009, the phrase trauma informed was something I was beginning to hear about. Since then, the classification of agencies, programs and organizations as trauma informed has become for the human service world what organic is to the food world. That is to say, trauma informed agencies, programs and practices must meet certain criteria. They are required to educate their staff on important considerations like the prevalence of trauma in society, signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, how and why persons with trauma can be triggered or re-traumatized by well-meaning care providers, and some tools and practices for minimizing re-traumatization. When an agency identifies itself as trauma informed it is more attractive to stakeholders.
To call yourself trauma informed is to say you are aware of the current consciousness being raised around trauma and your staff has been educated in this awareness. But is it enough?
We owe it to the individuals we serve to be trauma responsive. It is not enough to simply be informed about trauma in others. To fully empower survivors, we have a responsibility to understand our own traumas as well, and how they impact the way we respond to others. This understanding cannot come from intellectual information alone; it must be an embodied awareness and practice.
Over the last ten years, there has been a rising consciousness around somatic awareness and mindfulness in mental health. As a treatment for trauma, practices such as yoga, meditation, and interoceptive awareness are becoming more prevalent. But as care givers, if we ourselves are not aware of our own unconscious responses to stress and adversity, we run the risk of perpetuating the cycle of trauma activation in ourselves and others.
This is particularly true in the context of relationships, because most traumatic experiences originate within relationship – particularly where there is a power differential. What’s more, the unconscious activation of somatic trauma responses happens every day in all types of relationship, between health care worker and client, supervisor and staff, peer to peer, and family member to family member.
In my opinion, we owe it to ourselves and everyone in our lives to be trauma responsive.
To be trauma responsive, we must notice our own internal physical (somatic) responses to those with whom we are in relation, and respond first to those sensations in our body. Without this kind of awareness and good tools for responding to it, we are very likely to respond to our own activation in habitual yet sometimes unhelpful ways.
Learning to observe our own unpleasant sensations is hard work. As someone who trains mental health staff in trauma responsiveness, I can understand there may be many intellectual barriers to overcome. Here is a simple practice that anyone can use to begin creating some space between a stressor and a habituated response:
1. Pause: Take a moment to scan the sensations in your body before responding to what someone says or does. Common sensations include a quickened heartrate, sweating, a rush of heat in the chest, tightness in the chest, tightness in the throat, or a tingling or numbing feeling.
2. Breathe: Consciously creating a pause by taking 5-10 deep abdominal breaths can create enough time to choose a mindful response to your sensations; and it can also have an immediate de-escalating effect for everyone involved.
A lack of self-awareness is not the only inhibitor to trauma responsiveness. Equally important is the ability to have compassion for both oneself and others. When we judge ourselves for our responses, or blame and judge others, we contribute to a collective lack of empathy in our relationships and communities.
Social well-being does not exist in a bubble. Just as trauma often happens in relationship, it is in relationship that we heal, thrive and experience well-being. Without empathetic relationships, families, communities and systems our sense of well-being can be challenged. And when we cultivate a compassionate relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others can change and our ability to be more trauma responsive in our work and life is more accessible.