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What it Really Means to Be Trauma Informed

What it Really Means to Be Trauma Informed

Understanding Trauma and Its Impact

Understanding trauma and how it impacts people is essential to being trauma-informed. Trauma refers to experiences that overwhelm a person's ability to cope, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable.

The effects of trauma are far-reaching.

Trauma can impact how a person thinks, learns, and interacts with the world. It often causes problems with memory, focus, and decision making. Trauma survivors may struggle with emotional regulation, impulse control, and relationship building.

Trauma changes the brain.

Traumatic experiences actually reshape the brain, altering the size and connectivity of various regions involved in memory, emotion regulation, threat detection, and more. This results in a brain that is hypervigilant for danger and has a hard time differentiating true threats from false alarms.

The good news is, with support, the brain can heal. Providing trauma-informed care, creating safe spaces, and helping survivors develop coping strategies can help reverse damage from trauma exposure. Understanding trauma and conveying hope for recovery are the first steps to becoming truly trauma-informed.

Core Principles of a Trauma-Informed Approach

To be trauma-informed means embracing some core principles in how you view and interact with others:

  1. Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand how it affects people, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Trauma is extremely common and can influence how people think, learn, and interact with the world.

  2. Respond by integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, practices, and settings. This could mean avoiding triggers like sudden loud noises, providing choices and control where possible, and maintaining transparency.

  3. Promote safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. A trauma-informed approach makes people feel physically and psychologically safe, builds trust through transparency, gives choices and a sense of control, involves collaborative decision making, and empowers people to be active participants in their own recovery.

  4. Strive for cultural competence by understanding how trauma and your own culture intersect. Trauma may be experienced or expressed differently in different cultures.

Being Trauma-Informed: Practical Steps

To be trauma-informed means making an effort to understand how trauma can impact individuals and communities. It means recognizing the signs of trauma and adjusting your interactions and environment to avoid re-traumatization. Here are some practical steps you can take:

Educate yourself about trauma and its effects.

Learn how trauma can change the brain and body, resulting in behaviors that are often misunderstood. Recognize that trauma affects everyone differently. Seek to understand rather than judge.

Provide choice and control.

Give people options and respect their decisions. Ask for consent before engaging in any activity and stop if someone appears uncomfortable. Promote empowerment and autonomy.

Focus on safety and stability.

Help others feel physically and emotionally secure. Remain calm and consistent. Avoid harsh tones, sudden loud noises or touch, confrontation, and power struggles. Respond to crisis situations with care, compassion, and competence.

Share power.

Value input and share decision making. Explain your reasoning behind rules and policies. Be transparent and open to feedback. Promote collaboration through active listening, open communication, and a willingness to compromise when possible.

Practice self-care.

Address your own trauma to avoid perpetuating harm. Engage in regular self-reflection to examine biases and triggers. Set boundaries and ask for help when you need it. Your ability to be trauma-informed depends on your mental, physical, and emotional health. Make that a priority.

These steps require effort but can transform the way we live and interact with one another. A trauma-informed approach leads to relationships built on understanding, empowerment, and trust—and that benefits individuals and communities in meaningful ways.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). SAMHSA's concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Courtois, C. A. & Ford, J. D. (Eds. . (2013). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders (Adults): Scientific foundations and therapeutic models. Guilford Publications.

Levine, P. A. & Kline, M. (2007). Trauma through a child's eyes: Awakening the ordinary miracle of healing. North Atlantic Books.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin.

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