My last several blogs have focused on considering how needs often differ for someone who has experienced significant trauma versus someone who has not and how it is important to intentionally respond in ways that address specific needs of that person. My last blog focused on intentionally responding to someone with unresolved trauma: Trauma-Sensitive Affirming. By means of a review, the first level is mindfully establishing safety and keeping distance in order to promote a relational dynamic of sensitivity while giving the trauma-impacted person the power to determine how vulnerable, transparent and authentic or close they want to be to the trauma-sensitive responder. This was followed by using trauma-sensitive Active Listening and trauma-sensitive affirming. It is important for the responder to keep in mind that they need to be fluid in using the other levels–these levels are not some kind of prescribed script for responding.
Today we will consider a fourth level: teaching to explain, normalize and empower.
At this level there is an openness to learning on the part of the trauma-impacted person. The person now seems to be in a calmer or more alert brain state versus being highly limbic or in a lower brain state. There has been a relational connection made and some degree of safety and trust has been established.
In this level, the trauma impacted person might benefit from information about trauma, its impact, the thoughts, feelings, behaviors, beliefs and needs of the trauma-impacted, what you know and understand about this person, general principles about relationships. This includes anything that you might be able to teach that might normalize and help them be more self-aware and have a greater level of clarity, self-understanding and self-compassion. This also helps put the trauma-impacted person more in charge of his or her own brain, another form of empowerment.
This level often provides an opportunity for the responder to teach about the differences between sensations and emotions and to invite them to focus on sensations they may be having at the moment and then to come back and focus on them throughout the conversation. This is a way to honor those sensations and teach the person to become more aware of how their traumatic memories often are expressed through these sensations. Normalizing them and inviting the person to allow those sensations to be honored can help the person release some toxic traumatic energy and can contribute to healing.
Sometimes the responder will observe the person exhibiting sensory reactions to whatever he or she is remembering. This might be a foot that taps or wiggles, shoulders that hunch or hands that are clenched. The person may seem to be staring off into space as they “watch” some memory replayed their mind. People might touch parts of their body protectively as they speak.
Once again, the responder needs to be very self-aware that he or she is not trying to pull up painful traumatic memories, which is the job of a trauma-competent therapist. At the same time when someone is sharing a story, a trauma-sensitive responder can teach about trauma and especially about the ways that the body remembers through sensations. The responder can invite someone to be aware of his or her sensations and then teach more about what that means and what helps the healing process.
All people need to authentically share stories of life experiences that are significant and to be vulnerable about the meaning of the story, its impact and the ways it makes the person feel. By learning more about the brain and how it functions, the trauma-impacted person can begin to feel safer within themselves, to understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and to know they are not abnormal, crazy or sick but rather reacting to the emotional wounding trauma causes. They will also learn about the power they have to be more in charge of their brain and better able to turn down trauma-related behaviors.
Invitation to Reflect
- Can you recall how it felt to get more information about the nature of trauma and about how the brain responds when experiencing trauma? How did receiving this information help meet some of your own needs to become clearer and more confident in your understanding of how trauma might impact you or someone you care about?
- Consider some of the things you might want to teach someone who has been impacted by trauma. I highly recommend David Baldwin’s Trauma Pages to become a student about the many subjects you might teach someone related to trauma.
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute