What does it mean to be
Content warning: This article discusses the general themes of violence and sexual abuse.
Holly is a counsellor at the Barbra Schlifer Clinic
As a counsellor who provides individual and group counselling for trauma survivors, I spend a lot of time paying attention to how services and spaces can be made more trauma-informed. You might be wondering what it means to be ‘trauma-informed,’ and what the benefits are. To discuss that, however, it is essential to have an understanding of trauma, and different ways it affects people.
When someone has experienced trauma, it means they were affected by something that was or was perceived to be at the time, a threat to their survival.
When someone has experienced trauma, it means they were affected by something that was or was perceived to be at the time, a threat to their survival. A survivor’s experience could range from a single event such as a car accident, natural disaster or robbery. Trauma may also be due to ongoing threats, such as family violence or childhood neglect. Some people who have experienced trauma will develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, while others may not. Symptoms of trauma are a function of the body’s survival responses working overtime, even when the threat is no longer present. There can be high energy responses, known as ‘fight or flight,’ where the body is primed to either physically defend itself or escape. This may look like panic, aggression, or anxiety, and might feel like tense muscles and a rapid heartbeat. Or, the body may respond by “freezing” or “feigning death” in response to the trauma, when they might feel paralyzed or ‘scared stiff.’ This response might translate to symptoms of low energy, like depression, feelings of numbness, and fatigue.
Some trauma survivors will find themselves moving from one extreme to the other. When symptoms are severe, people can also be impacted by triggers, which are often caused by sight, sound, smell or sensation that reminds them of the traumatic event. These triggers can manifest as intense emotions, sensations or flashbacks or intrusive imagery that can feel like they are reliving the traumatic event, and will experience the accompanying physical and emotional responses. These responses are the body’s attempt to protect the survivor from further harm. For instance, an antelope that nearly escaped an attack by a tiger might be more diligent in scanning its environment for orange and black stripes. However, when these symptoms persist long after the danger has passed, and the response is no longer helpful, it begins to impact one’s quality of life negatively. Survivors may feel frightened or ashamed of these often involuntary responses. To avoid embarrassment or stigma, they may become good at pretending and hiding symptoms or seek refuge in self-isolation.
At the core of trauma is a persistent feeling of being unsafe in the world.
At the core of trauma is a persistent feeling of being unsafe in the world. For some, trauma-related symptoms may resolve with time, while for others, they may not. While we don’t yet fully understand why some people get PTSD and others don’t, we do know of factors that tend to exert an influence. Even if the service provider themselves have had their life touched by trauma, their experience or needs may not be the same as someone else’s. The trauma-informed service provider understands trauma in its full complexity and knows how to provide the necessary accommodation and space for a trauma survivor to take the initiative in self-care.
It is important to understand that being trauma-informed is not about removing all triggers or offering guarantees for safety. This is not possible. One can try to be mindful of familiar sources of triggers such as abuse and violence. However, many different things can be triggers, and these cannot always be avoided. In fact, well-intentioned attempts by others to protect or insulate the survivor from the world takes power and choice away from the survivor. Survivors of trauma are resilient, even if they do not realize it, and they have established resources and coping skills that have helped them survive. When I work with trauma survivors, identifying and amplifying the client’s existing strengths is
the first step to giving them back a sense of power and safety. With this information in mind, we can make small adjustments to spaces and services to make them trauma-informed.
A trauma-informed space offers structure and (whenever possible) predictability while placing a special emphasis on personal choice and consent. The facilitators of these spaces are strict but flexible enough to adjust routines and tasks to the individual needs of clients.
Creating structure in a group therapy session or workshop, for example, means sharing the guidelines in advance to allow participants to decide whether the programming is right for them. Clients might appreciate knowing when breaks are scheduled, but also be permitted to step out of the room if feeling overwhelmed.
A writer of a news article about sexual violence may provide a sense of predictability by preceding it with a content warning. This warning will convey information that allows readers to make an informed decision for themselves. Based on how they are feeling, they can choose if they want to read the article or not.
In healthcare settings, the medical professional should always advise the client what kind of physical contact is necessary, ask for consent, and allow questions.
Adjustments like these may seem like small changes but can make a big difference to trauma survivors.
Since different spaces operate differently and have access to various resources, there aren’t one-size-fits-all recommendations for trauma accommodation. However, we might identify possibilities for improvement by asking the following questions:
1. Do we acknowledge that trauma is a common human experience?;
2. How can we give a survivor the impression that they matter, their story matters, and that their sense of safety matters?
3. Does this space offer structure and predictability, so people can make informed choices about, if, and how they will engage with it?
4. Have I made it welcoming for individuals to approach me and express what they might need?
5. Have I given explicit and implicit permission for people to acknowledge and address their emotional needs in this space?
6. Have I made resources available for this purpose?
7. Am I willing to be flexible, to learn, and challenge my own perspective of the world?
Considering the above questions can be a great start towards looking at the world through a trauma-informed lens.
Survivors are resilient, even if they don’t yet see it in themselves. Survivors may have to expend a tremendous amount of energy navigating the world while feeling frequently or even perpetually under threat. When they seek help or engage in the world in a new way, it is with great courage. Conscientious efforts made by those who facilitate supportive spaces can make a big difference to a trauma survivor, and a stepping stone to a new sense of safety, belonging and acceptance. We can, and should, continue to do better make trauma-informed spaces available and accessible.
Survivors are resilient, even if they don’t see it in themselves.