The term trauma-informed care is a very important concept. A trauma-informed therapist is aware of the complex impact of trauma (any perceived trauma) on a person’s suffering and how it shapes a person’s efforts to cope. A trauma-informed approach integrates a thorough knowledge of this impact into every aspect of treatment. It also means that any person or organization that claims to be trauma-informed makes emotional and psychological safety a priority for the people they serve.
Unfortunately, trauma-informed care — or TIC — is also becoming a buzzword. More people are using it casually with too little regard for what it means.
If you hear someone describe himself or herself or their organization as trauma-informed, I want you to have a good idea what that means so you can look for signs that the quality of care holds true to that claim. I want to give you some tips for finding a truly trauma-informed therapist in a landscape where it has become a buzzword.
Your Safety Takes Top Priority in Trauma-Informed Care
Trauma-informed care recognizes the impact of experiences that threaten a person’s sense of safety and wellbeing.
Trauma changes how a person regulates their thoughts and feelings, and their ability to care for themselves emotionally and psychologically. TIC also recognizes that a person with a history of trauma may not think of himself or herself as a trauma survivor, and may not even be fully aware of what it means to live with the consequences of what they experienced.
A therapist who is trauma-informed knows that the mind and body of a person with unhealed trauma is functioning in an altered way. That person may be easily triggered to feel too much emotional intensity (hyperarousal), or shut down and unable to feel much at all (hypoarousal).
Someone offering trauma-informed care uses all the tools and treatments they can to promote healing, while preventing further harm from hyper- or hypoarousal. An organization or person offering trauma-informed care prioritizes six key principles says SAMHSA (the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration):
- Trustworthiness and Transparency
- Peer support
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice and choice
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues
What Is Trauma-Informed Therapy?
A trauma-informed approach seeks an awareness of the widespread impact of trauma on life experience and relationships. It recognizes trauma’s role in the outlook, emotions and behavior of a person with a trauma history. A trauma-informed approach also accepts that trauma’s impact is far more prevalent than most people realize.
As trauma-informed therapists, we choose to focus not only on the behavior someone is trying to change —but also on the underlying reasons for the behavior and the relief it provides currently.
We focus on behavior, beliefs and desired relief so we can do repair work at the deepest level to make the change long lasting. A trauma-informed approach attends to the underlying trauma from any cause.
Trauma-informed care can apply to anyone. It’s not just for people with obvious sources of trauma like physical or sexual abuse. Trauma-informed care applies as well to people with a history of depression or anxiety that has wreaked havoc on life, people with emotional abuse or attachment wounds, or any kind of trauma.
The Challenge: Help Trauma Survivors Heal When They Don’t Recognize Their Own Trauma
Trauma-informed care is intended to meet the challenge of helping someone safely recognize their trauma history even when they don’t believe their experience includes trauma.
You may not consider your life experience to include trauma.
Yet the way you have learned to cope in life may reflect the impact of trauma even if you don’t recognize it in yourself. That is why the most effective treatment is from an approach that is trauma-informed.
The reality is, a wide range of adverse events can cause trauma. Some are easier to recognize than others. A trauma-informed therapist’s job is to help someone heal from adverse experiences, even when that person does not identify as a trauma survivor.
Why is a Trauma-Informed Approach Necessary?
Recognizing trauma’s role in a person’s experience is essential to treating and healing the toxic stress of trauma on one’s life. Untreated, this stress can result in so many negative health outcomes. In her TED Talk, Nadine Burke Harris discusses how childhood trauma affects health across an entire lifetime.
Recognizing the nature of trauma and understanding its impact is where the hope lies—it’s where recovery begins! Trauma-informed care is built on a holistic view that offers safety and compassion. It inspires hope, strength, relief, and enables people to make long-lasting change.
What Happens if You Don’t Have a (Truly) Trauma-Informed Therapist?
Unfortunately, some clients find me after working with someone who claimed to be trauma-informed but whose approach left clients feeling more distressed and unsafe.
When I hear a client tell me their last therapist wanted to know all the details of their trauma on the first appointment I think, “Whoa! If your ‘trauma-informed therapist’ ever asked you to do this—this approach was not trauma-informed!” Talking about the details of the trauma — without building resources to regulate your emotions first — activates the same neural pathways again. This rightly leaves a person with trauma feeling unsafe in that moment, too!
I certainly don’t want the trauma to be re-enacted during a first meeting. The process needs to be gradual, and it must start with safety, stabilization and trust.
Have you Been Turned Off by Past Therapy Because it Felt too Overwhelming?
When therapists move too fast, it can do damage to the healing process and the client. Until both the therapist and client understand the underlying issues and build resources and safety, talking about what happened can lead clients further down a path to harmful behavior, depression, anxiety or even shame.
A safe, compassionate environment is the hallmark of trauma-informed therapy. It offers a way to make your experience understandable and manageable so there is hope, healing and long-lasting change. This is why I’m shouting from the rooftops about the benefits of trauma-informed care! If you have had a negative therapeutic experience in the past, I encourage you to try again with a trauma-informed therapist who has the knowledge and training to explain what it means clearly to you.
Seeking a Trauma-Informed Therapist? Here’s What to Look For
Unfortunately, there’s no official database of “trauma-informed therapists.” But I’d like to share some tips—what to look for—when you’re seeking a trauma informed therapist. Pay attention to a how a therapist describes themselves on their website; listen to how they talk to you on the phone.
When a therapist has an authentically trauma-informed approach:
- They will talk about safety from the beginning: physical safety, emotional safety, and creating a safe environment where healing can occur.
- They will talk about self-care, boundaries, grounding and resourcing.
- Their approach recognizes that your behavior isn’t who you are—rather that it makes sense based on your history. It is what happened to you, not who you are!
- They work to understand your coping skills, how you survived your experiences, and help you build new healthy coping skills.
- They move at a pace you’re comfortable with, collaborating with you along the way, and work to keep you within your window of tolerance of emotions.
Don’t be afraid to request more information like: Tell me what a trauma-informed approach means to you.
In addition, pay attention to how you feel in the initial meetings with a new therapist. You should feel respected and comfortable. You should feel that you are being allowed to slowly build a relationship and a sense of safety in the therapy room before ever sharing deeper information about your trauma history. My hope for you is that you will also feel compassion, warmth and kindness.
Most importantly, if any therapist asks you for the nitty-gritty details of your trauma the first day you meet them, RUN in the other direction!
Here’s more on finding a good therapist.
You Deserve the Best Care!
If you’re on a therapeutic journey or thinking about it for yourself or a loved one, I can’t stress enough the importance of having a trauma-informed therapist.
I know it may be hard to think that you deserve the best, but if you can take only one thing from this article, it’s that you DESERVE a therapist who can help you heal by respecting you and working together with you, compassionately, to help you heal and move forward.
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Trauma & Addiction
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Trauma & Compassion
- To Heal Trauma, Free Your Most Compassionate Self
- The Role of the Authentic Self in Trauma-Informed Care