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Understanding This Theory is Essential to Being Trauma-Informed


My typically happy, well-adjusted 11-year old daughter was having a melt downs of all melt downs.  She was crying hysterically.  I could hear her wailing downstairs as she was upstairs.  I could feel my heart rate rising as her distress increased.

I called up to my husband; “What is going on with Hannah?”  Granted, the night before was a late Halloween night fueled by massive amounts of sugar.  That right there renders a dire state in the body – little sleep, ample sugar.

My gut twisted as I heard her shrieking.  It is the same gut distress I experienced when she was a crying infant.  It was an inner state I could not tolerate.  I had to comfort her in order to comfort myself.

I tried to give my husband room to console her but it wasn’t happening fast enough.  I mobilized to the sound of her sobs where I found her hiding under the sheets crying in our guest bedroom.  My husband was telling her she had to go to her bedroom.  I dart my furious eyes to him and utter through pursed lips, “Why?”

My first instinct – the instinct I honed from 20 years of working with children in various states of dysregulation and raising two children was – be quiet.  Sit quietly, wait, give her space, but not too much room, be physically and psychologically present without touching her.  Let her cry if it’s discharging the excess energy effectively.  In other words, if she is starting to cry less and appears to be moving in the direction of settling let her continue.  Offer gentle and delicately simple words of comfort, occasionally.

“I am here.”

“I hear you starting to calm down.”

“I am still here with you.”

However, my presence in that moment accelerates her arousal so I exit and let my husband continue his attempt.  In all fairness, I almost always try and take over these situations because I am a master at helping others regulate.  But this is my daughter. My presence in that moment signifies more threat in her body.  More on why this is later.

My husband eventually helps her settle and she returns to her own bed.  Once she’s there she asks to speak with me.  I help her cognitively process her heightened state.

People often fail to recognize that there is no reasoning, no rational cognitive process occurring in a state of heightened arousal.  That comes after someone has regained composure, settled, or calmed down.  This simple understanding is at the crux of being trauma-informed.

The way that I handled this situation and the awareness I have in this circumstance is in large part thanks to Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory.  Porges’ theory helps to demystify much of human behavior and yet the vast majority of people have never heard of it.  I don’t know how anyone can truly be trauma-informed in the absence of understanding his work.  Part of the reason people may be unaware of his theory is because it’s dense and often detailed in clinical or scientific publications.  I am going to do my best to translate his work in “normal people” speak.

Porges contends that through the course of mammalian evolution we developed a more sophisticated autonomic nervous system. Hard-wired for survival, our primitive selves mobilized effortlessly into defensive states (i.e. fight, flight or freeze).  However, as humans evolved into a more social and cooperative species, we developed physiological features that supported what Porges calls, “the realm of social engagement.”

The realm of social engagement is where relationships are built and repaired.  It’s kind of like the realm of unicorns, butterflies and rainbows.  Hope, trust, love, and healing abounds in the realm of social engagement.  When we are in this realm, we can speak with compassion, we can access our “better selves” and we can co-regulate with others.  But if our bodies perceive threat, we can get hijacked out of social engagement and mobilized into more defensive states.

Let me repeat, we mobilize unconsciously into defensive states of fight, flight, or freeze reactions in the presence of perceived novelty or threat.  Otherwise stated, the vast majority of modern day human misbehavior or problematic behavior (I.e. verbal / physical aggression, noncompliance, hypervigilance, etc.) has been essential to our survival.  It’s through the development of our modern day phylogenetic features that we gained some conscious control over of our actions.  The degree to which we can access these conscious controls is largely dependent upon our perception of cues of safety in the environment and in our interpersonal relationships.  Developmental and acute trauma can damage access to these conscious controls and shapes our perception of safety and danger.  Consequently, those with a trauma history are more likely to defense mobilize in the presence of perceived threat or novelty.

This is where trauma-informed work should be focusing.  How are we creating safety for people?  What are we doing to connote safety in our environments – colors, textures, smells, objects, lighting, access to the natural world?  What about in our interpersonal relationships?  Are we aware of the prosody of our voice, the gestures of our face and body?

Moreover, do we know how to settle ourselves enough to regain access to the realm of social engagement when we have been mobilized into activation or shutdown in the presence of threat?  When a child is screaming in our face or our boss has pursed lips and a flushed face, we experience our own defense mobilization.

The truth of the matter is we need to be cultivating more self-awareness if we truly want to be trauma-informed and trauma-responsive.

“No one can ‘treat’ a war, or abuse, rape, molestation, or any other horrendous event, for that matter;  what has happened cannot be undone.  But what can be dealt with are the imprints of the trauma on body, mind, and soul:  the crushing sensations in your chest that you label as anxiety or depression; the fear of losing control; always being on alert for danger or rejection; the self-loathing; the nightmares and flashbacks; the fog that keeps you from staying on task and from engaging fully in what you are doing; being unable to fully open your heart to another human being.

Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.”  – Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

In many trauma-informed change efforts, we hunger to learn more about how to “help those” children, friends, colleagues that are experiencing hypo or hyperarousal states (i.e. shutdown, aggression, agitation, non-compliance).  We seek to broaden our toolkit of trauma-informed strategies.  Strategies matter but what matters more is understanding our own state – because the “hard to face” truth is our defense mobilization can inadvertently contribute to the state of dysregulation we seek to ease in another.

Remember what I described when I came upon with my daughter hysterically crying in the bedroom?  My defense mobilization was communicated by the death glare at my husband and my momma bear growl, “why?” I was defense mobilized because of my own lived experiences and because she’s my daughter (who I am inextricably biologically linked to).  My defense mobilization inadvertently contributed to an increase in her dysregulation.  Fortunately, I recognized that in the moment and exited.  This is much harder to do then it sounds.

This is what I am trying to help people feel safe enough to do – to really look at themselves.  What triggers you?  What do you need to feel safe?  What practices give you a sense of being grounded and calm?  Are you engaging in these practices regularly in your home, or in the classroom, or in your work spaces to help modulate the stress response systems of the collective?

The work of being trauma-informed and trauma-responsive is complex.  But there is a single great way to begin that is fairly simple – increasing self-awareness.

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This is a very good explanation. I certainly spent the first part of my teaching career engaging students while they were in the heightened state. And I mirrored by trying to be louder and "more authoritative". It is certainly an idea that needs to permeate schools. I think elementary teachers know this but I'm not too sure about those who work with teens.

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