(This article was previously posted on medium.com.)
By Kathryn K. Carroll, LCSW
“Trauma” is a word that we’ve heard a lot in the past year, and for good reason (see: global pandemic, racial injustice, mass shootings). Trauma is something we often think only happens to other people. Statistically speaking, however, most humans are more likely than not to experience a “traumatic event” in their lifetime. Nearly 1 in 10 people in the US will have PTSD at some point in their lives; this likelihood is closer to 1 in 3 in urban populations. Trauma is a risk factor for nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders.
As a clinician at Chicago CRED, an organization working to reduce gun violence, I see the impact of trauma daily among both clients and colleagues. From participants who are constantly looking over their shoulders and struggle to trust even their own family and friends, to staff who carry the weight of each death from gun violence as a personal failure, trauma colors every interaction and complicates an already arduous task. Our city is desperately in need of healing. Foundations are helping, Chicago’s business community is stepping up, and federal funds are now on their way. But we, as individuals, can also do more.
There has been a movement recently in the social services field to ensure that all services provided are “trauma informed.” The best explanation I’ve come across of what it means to be “trauma-informed” is shifting from asking the question “What is wrong with you?” to asking “What happened to you?” It means choosing to view a person’s behavior through the lens of how trauma impacts the human body and mind; considering how an individual’s past experiences shape their perception of present interactions. When we regularly and intentionally step outside of ourselves to consider another person’s experience and how it impacts their worldview, empathy becomes the norm rather than the exception.
As a trauma therapist I see the impact of trauma daily by choice. But most of us encounter trauma survivors every day, whether we know it or not (see statistics above). People say to me, “I don’t know how you spend all day talking and thinking about such hard things, I could never do that.” And they remind me that there is a privilege in choosing to do this work, as trauma survivors don’t get to choose whether or not to live with the impact of their trauma. I don’t take that privilege lightly. But I also believe that most people want to help, to do more, to bring healing to the brokenness in our society; they just aren’t sure how.
I believe that desire to help comes from our natural, biological drive for connection. Connection facilitates healing; in fact, so often it is a sense of isolation that prevents survivors from recovering, and those that do find connection are far more likely to recover. The potential for safe connection is ever-present; yet so many of us feel a sense of disconnection in today’s post-COVID world, or are unsure of how to make authentic connections with others.
In my experience working with trauma survivors, I’ve found there are some key behaviors that are foundational to creating safe, authentic connection. These actions embody what it means to be “trauma informed.” And they are things that everyone can do, right now; today.
1. Understand the brain’s response to threat. We all have a brain, but few of us really understand how it works, or why we do the things we do, especially under conditions of extreme stress. Thankfully, neuroscientific advances over the past 30 years have unraveled many of these mysteries. It never ceases to amaze me when a client learns the basics of their brain structure and the brain’s response to threat or stress, and suddenly they no longer view themselves as “broken” or “crazy”, but rather as “human.” This understanding can also help us to view others’ behaviors as less dysfunctional and more rational, if we are willing to consider the context of the situation. Do yourself a favor — take 5 minutes to educate yourself about the neurobiology of stress and trauma. You may never see your own reactions the same way.
2. Look for the underlying need. All behavior serves a function. As outsiders observing others’ behaviors, it can be easy to rush to judgment when we see people doing things that clearly create more problems in their life than they solve. (A common example of this is self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or emotional pain.) But if we take the time to look a little deeper and ask ourselves “what need is this person trying to meet by engaging in this behavior?” we find that their behavior isn’t so strange after all. The need for control, connection, coping — these are all normal, healthy needs we all have. As humans, we are wired to do whatever it takes to get our needs met and sometimes we will go to extremes to do so, to our own detriment. But when we look at a person’s seemingly dysfunctional behavior and identify the purpose of their behavior, we realize that we’re not so different after all.
At times, we may not know enough about a person or the context of their situation to find the underlying need. In these situations, knowing that all behavior serves a function, it can be helpful to give that person the benefit of the doubt and trust that they are doing the best they can with the skills they have.
3. Collaborate. Many relationships have some sort of inherent power dynamic by virtue of role expectations (e.g. boss/employee, parent/child, service provider/client, etc.). One of the most common triggers for an individual who has experienced trauma is finding themselves in a position where they have less power or control than someone else. In a traumatic experience, the survivor doesn’t have the power to protect themselves. They aren’t given a choice about whether or not to experience harm — the choice is made for them. When we approach relationships from a place of collaboration, we minimize the power differential, reducing the sense of threat.
In some situations, power differentials can serve a useful function (e.g. boss/employee). In these circumstances, it can be helpful to offer choices whenever possible. Having some degree of choice in a decision helps individuals to meet their basic need to feel a sense of control over their lives (see #2).
4. Reflect and validate. Trauma survivors often report feeling misunderstood by and “different” from others. Another basic human need is the need to be “seen”, heard, and understood. A powerful way to do this is through reflective listening, a common micro-skill used by most therapists, which involves reflecting back what you hear a person say to show them that you understand, or at least you’re trying to. When a person feels “seen” in this way, it triggers a sense of physiological safety and connection, which are key components of healing from trauma.
Validation takes this sense of being “seen” further, facilitating a feeling of acceptance. Validation is simply acknowledging that a person’s thoughts or feelings are reasonable or worthwhile. Validating another person’s feelings or opinions doesn’t mean you have to agree with them; you simply have to acknowledge that what they think or feel is important and has value. One way to do this when a situation involves differing opinions is to use a “both/and” approach, rather than an “either/or” approach. Two very different perspectives of a problem can be true at the same time, and when we acknowledge the complexity of this dialectic, we often come closer to a solution than if we insist on duking it out over our differences.
5. Set healthy boundaries, and stick to them. The majority of interpersonal problems clients bring into therapy involve some sort of issue with boundaries — setting too many, not setting enough, or feeling that others are violating ours. Boundaries create safety by letting people know what to expect: what is and isn’t okay. When people set and respect clearly communicated boundaries, trust is built; when those boundaries are violated, trust erodes and conflict shows up. Interpersonal trauma involves the extreme violation of an individual’s boundaries, and survivors often struggle with trusting others (and themselves) afterwards. In trying to make sense of the trauma and prevent subsequent violations, trauma survivors may resort to setting extreme boundaries (pushing others away), or avoid setting boundaries at all because they assume they won’t be respected anyway (becoming overly passive, a “doormat”).
Consistency is paramount when it comes to boundaries: if we say something is or isn’t okay, we need to stick to that, otherwise our words are meaningless. Setting boundaries (saying no, making requests of others, etc.) can be uncomfortable, as with any type of negotiation, but the more clarity and consistency a person experiences in a relationship, the safer they will feel and the more they will develop the capacity to trust both themselves and others.
6. Acknowledge your mistakes. No human being is perfect when it comes to relationships, or doing any of the five behaviors listed above. Thankfully, we don’t have to be perfect; we just have to do our best, and when we fall short, be willing to admit that we didn’t quite hit our mark. In fact, when we acknowledge our imperfection and seek to repair any harm we may have caused along the way, regardless of intention, we model those behaviors for others and increase the likelihood that they will do the same for us in the future when they inevitably fall short of our expectations. Therapists call this concept “rupture and repair.” Many survivors of childhood trauma have never experienced the “repair” part, only the “rupture” part. Making an effort to repair relationship ruptures can go a long way to restore a survivor’s faith in humanity.
None of the above six actions requires a masters degree or years of training, just a desire to be a better human. What’s more, they are all behaviors that facilitate healthy connection among humans in general, regardless of trauma history. I challenge you to pick one of the above behaviors, and practice it for a week. We may not have a cure for trauma, but the potential for healing is abundant.