This is the first in a series of posts on trauma and trauma informed culture. Look for future posts from me and some special guest bloggers over the next several months!
If asked for a definition of trauma, most of us would be able to give a generally knowledgeable response. We think of the affects of combat duty, living through a tornado, surviving abuse.
Identifying what defines a trauma informed culture might be a little more difficult. Where I work, our vision of a trauma informed culture is a safe and supportive environment developed through knowledge, sensitivity, and respect for the impact of trauma with a focus on resilience and recovery.
In a trauma informed culture, people ask “What happened to that person?” instead of “What is wrong with that person?” For optimal recovery from a traumatic event or series of events, it is important for therapists treating individuals who have experienced trauma have the specific knowledge and expertise to do so. There have been many positive strides in trauma treatment since I started working as a therapist. As a new therapist, I often felt that I was working blindfolded and in the dark. We know much more now about how trauma affects the brain as well as what interventions hold out the most hope for recovery. We now recognize that the environment in which treatment occurs must foster security and be founded on the belief that all people can heal from painful and sometimes devastating life situations. This is about more than just the therapy provided. It is about creating a safe place where a new client will ask to meet the person who scheduled their first appointment because she was so kind. It is about the youth returning to treatment who tells the receptionist “I am so glad you are still here. Do you remember me?” and the receptionist does. It is about therapists taking care of themselves after hearing about the worst life has to offer day in and day out. This is a trauma informed culture.
The first step in developing a trauma informed culture is understanding the definition of trauma. Here is some basic information to get started:
- Trauma can occur following a one-time event or a series of events.
- Trauma results from how a person experiences the event(s), not what actually happened.
- Some people rebound quickly from even the most shocking experiences. Others are devastated by experiences that, on the surface, appear to be less upsetting.
- Events that are most likely to cause trauma are those that:
- are unexpected
- a person is unprepared for
- occur in childhood
- happen repeatedly
- make a person feel powerless
People are more likely to be traumatized by a new situation if they’ve been traumatized before, especially if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood.
- Symptoms of trauma can include:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
o Feeling sad or hopeless
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anxiety and fear
- Withdrawing from others
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Racing heartbeat
- Aches and pains
- Difficulty concentrating
- Edginess and agitation
- Muscle tension
- Feeling disconnected or numb
These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months. But, memories or emotions can rise again, especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or an image, sound, or situation that reminds the person of the traumatic experience.
I recently visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Inside, there is a room honoring all the people who lost their lives as a result of the bombing. For each person, there is a photo and memory box. Some are filled with mementos and some are empty. It struck me as I stood there overwhelmed by sadness that this is a very realistic representation of how trauma affects different people differently. Trauma recovery is a very individualized process.
Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace. But if months have passed and symptoms aren’t letting up, it may be time to seek professional help from a trauma expert who practices in a trauma informed culture.
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” ― Fred Rogers