What is trauma? What does being “trauma-informed” really mean and why is it important?

      • Expert Insights
    • 19.10.20

    Trauma can affect anyone, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity or profession.  It can come in many forms and can be the result of an infinite number of reasons.

    When a person lives with trauma their brain works differently and their behaviour changes, yet we as a society often respond in unhelpful ways.

    Having an awareness of psychological trauma and its potential impact can make a real difference to a person’s quality of life. A trauma-informed approach also allows organisations to provide the most effective support to people who have experienced adversity in their lives. This may include employees as well as the people they serve and support.

    Why is being trauma-informed particularly important right now?

    This year has been an incredibly challenging and anxious time, with adults and children across the world being exposed and reacting to the confusing, stressful and sometimes frightening coronavirus disease and its impact on their routines and lives. Restrictions and 'lockdowns' may have provided an unexpected opportunity for families to bond, but will have been traumatic for those in toxic and abusive relationships.

    Restrictions have also been a flashpoint for conflict that we have seen increase across a number of sectors. Changes to routines will have been especially confusing and distressing for some people, including those depending on others for support. Left unaddressed this may present behaviours of concern and harm the very relationships that are so important in coping with trauma.

    Levels of worry, bewilderment and sadness are to be expected and it is important to consider whether the people you work or interact with are displaying emotional and behavioural reactions that might indicate traumatic stress.

    Early recognition and support can help to prevent stress and trauma manifesting, which is why it is important to be trauma-informed. 

    What is trauma?

    In its simplest form, trauma can be defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or physical injury.

    The Australian Children Foundation describes trauma as: “The emotional, psychological and physiological residue left over from the heightened stress that accompanies experiences of threat, violence and life-changing events (2010).”

    Speaking at the Maybo Annual Conference, Tony France, Director at Headsight and TAG Trauma Action Group, described trauma as: “A normal response to abnormal events.” Regardless of the cause, trauma contains three common elements:

    •  It was unexpected
    • The person was unprepared
    • There was nothing they could do to stop it from happening and they were overwhelmed

    Trauma affects people in profound ways over their life course, impacting their behaviour, feelings, relationships and views of the world. 

    Workplace violence can be traumatic, for example, where a colleague experiences an incident they did not expect and/or were unprepared for, especially if no help or support was available.

    What are “ACEs”?

    Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events occurring before age 18. 

    ACEs include all types of abuse and neglect as well as parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, incarceration, and domestic violence.

    The more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely they are to suffer things like heart disease, diabetes, poor academic achievement and substance abuse in later life, which highlights the far-reaching impact trauma can have on a person.

    While ACE’s often last a lifetime, healing can occur, and the cycle can be broken with safe, stable, nurturing relationships that help people cope and move forward.

    What is a trauma-informed approach?

    Being trauma-informed can make a real difference to people’s lives – supporting a person to manage their distress and building their resilience.

    A trauma-informed approach will do no harm and will increase opportunities for people who may be struggling to have positive experiences.

    It can sometimes be difficult to know what to say, do, or how to help someone. We may worry about doing or saying the wrong thing, but the most important thing we can do is be present at times of stress or difficulty for those who need it.

    Never underestimate the power of supportive relationships.

    How can an environment have an impact?

    In order for positive change to occur, a person must feel safe. Safety is experienced by someone at an emotional (feeling) and cognitive (thinking) level, meaning that it is likely to be different for each person.

    Safety isn’t just simply the absence of a threat or risk. We must consider how we might create safety for an individual by acknowledging what safety is to that person.

    A person’s environment can have a huge impact on their feelings of safety and wellbeing. Things to take into consideration include whether it is:

    • Welcoming
    • Physically and emotionally safe
    • Aware of potential triggers (although do not assume a person will know what those triggers are)
    • Mindful of noises, light, temperature, colour, textures
    • Makes people want to engage with the space in a positive way 
    • Sensory diverse

    How can your interactions have an impact?

    Relationships are the principal tool for change in trauma-informed approaches to recovery. Crucially, positive, safe, predictable, nurturing relationships can support a person to manage their distress and build their strength.

    Any interactions should be:

    • Respectful
    • Non-threatening
    • Congruent
    • Understanding of triggers
    • Mindful of de-escalation techniques
    • Non-shaming
    • Calm and connected
    • Compassionate and kind
    • Demonstrate clear boundaries 

    Trauma can leave people feeling alone and not able to trust others. 

    Ensuring that a particular person or individual is available at a predictable time and responds in a consistent way to the person’s needs will help to begin the process of creating safety in relationships.

    Psychological trauma is caused when something happens that was not predicted, that the person was unprepared for and was overwhelmed. Creating routine directly addresses these aspects in a person’s life as routine is predictable and consistent.

    If you are looking for more information on this subject, our eLearning on Trauma-Informed approaches is available here, or you can talk to us directly about our wider learning portfolio.


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