Over the years, there has been growing awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and violence–whether sex trafficking, rape, child abuse or any of its other myriad forms. What that prevalence translates to is a lot of people who have suffered, and who may still be suffering from, trauma. What if we also counted everyone who has suffered from other adverse life experiences–from war to poverty to incarceration to physical abuse to substance abuse to childhood neglect to natural crises? Add in the crises of 2020: a pandemic, lockdowns, large-scale loss of lives and livelihoods, natural disasters, domestic violence on the rise, and being cut off from our communities and routines. As a society, we act as though “normal” is to not have experienced trauma, but what if, instead, the opposite is true? What if, instead, it was normal to acknowledge the high likelihood that the people we encounter have experienced some form of adverse experiences, some which may have caused trauma, and that it influences how safe they feel engaging in the world?
When we talk about best practices in anti-trafficking, we frequently use the term “trauma-informed care.” Let’s delve more into what that means.
This term is specific to an institutional or organizational culture. It’s about how health care providers or other institutions that interface directly with trauma victims should engage with individuals who are likely to have experienced trauma. “Trauma-Informed Care requires a system to make a paradigm shift from asking, “What is wrong with this person?” to “What has happened to this person?”” (Source: University at Buffalo, Buffalo Center for Social Research) Making this paradigm shift is central to ensuring that the way care providers engage with people does not unwittingly lead to more trauma.
What can exacerbate or cause more trauma?
Retraumatization can come from things like having to tell your story repeatedly (and thus reliving the experience over and over), being labeled or treated too impersonally, being forced to disrobe in front of others, or not being given freedom of choice in service or treatment.
To avoid this, trauma-informed care promotes these key components: safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment.
“Creating a physically and emotionally safe environment, establishing trust and boundaries, supporting autonomy and choice, creating collaborative relationships and participation opportunities and using a strengths and empowerment-focused perspective to promote resilience are ways in which the principles of Trauma-Informed Care work to reduce re-traumatization and promote healing.” (Source: University at Buffalo, Buffalo Center for Social Research)
However, not all of us work in fields designed to interact with people who’ve experienced trauma–and it’s not our role to be a person’s therapist. That said, there is an increase in attention paid, especially among schools and yoga instructors, to how others can become more “trauma sensitive.”
Trauma isn’t just something we feel or experience. It’s something that actually has an effect on the wiring of the human brain–it physically changes the brain, and has a lasting impact on the body. Trauma sensitivity is about the awareness of trauma’s impact on the brain and body, a person’s behavior, cognitive functions, executive function of the brain, and ability to learn, grow, succeed and engage in everyday life. Being sensitive to how trauma might have impacted a person can help form a culture or environment in which they feel welcomed, supported, safe, and empowered. This kind of sensitivity can help reduce the impact of trauma, while also helping to increase resilience.
What’s more, a lot of our ability to help others navigate trauma stems from the extent to which we have awareness of and have developed the tools to navigate our own experiences of trauma. It turns out that our ability to help others heal is intrinsically tied to our ability to heal ourselves.