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Trauma, trauma response, and trauma-informed care

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Based on the workshop “Exploring Trauma Reactions, Allyship & Anti-Oppression Principles” by Ayana Wallace

*Content warning: Descriptions of traumatic events and experiences, discussion of trauma-responses and systemic violence*

This week I attended a virtual workshop titled “Exploring Trauma Reactions, Allyship & Anti-Oppression Principles.” It was an early morning workshop with about 20 participants from various fields; some were therapists, a few social workers, and then some young entry-level people (like me) who were unsure of their careers, but eager to learn this information. The workshop was facilitated by Ayana Wallace, who is an advocate for survivors of domestic abuse and a training specialist with The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community (Ujima, Inc.).

This workshop was truly captivating, and we came at the issue of trauma from all angles. I knew a little bit about trauma coming into this, most of my background stemming from my obsession with the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk. Coming into this workshop, I knew trauma was a societal experience, something deeply embedded in our bodies and genetics. And I knew the current systems we have in place to deal with trauma (the medical system, the judicial system, and often the incarceration system) are absolutely failing to meet the needs of trauma-survivors. Ayana Wallace’s knowledge and presentation expanded on this little foundation of understanding, as we explored what different trauma-responses looked like at a clinical level vs. a personal level. We explored trauma through lenses of neuroscience, mindedness, and intersectionality. Overall this was an eye-opening workshop, one which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in better understanding the complex nature of trauma.

I took a lot of notes, and figured they might as well be zine-ified. So here we go!

What is trauma?

Like most terms, the meaning of trauma has changed throughout history. Originally, trauma only meant physical injury, like a broken bone or brain injury. When the field of psychology developed, trauma started to include extreme disturbing psychological experiences, like witnessing a horrible accident or experiencing a battlefield. Most recently, the definition of trauma has evolved to include a multitude of experiences and emotional responses. Today it is recognized that trauma is a common experience in our society.

Trauma is a full-brain experience involving three components of the brain; reptilian brain, mammalian brain, and prefrontal cortex. The reptilian brain manages bodily function & automatic nervous system (or our “fight or flight” response). The mammalian brain manages emotions and memories, and the prefrontal cortex manages mindfulness, cognition, and consciousness.

Experiencing trauma can trigger the release of a variety of different neurochemicals, such as adrenaline, natural opioids, and oxytocin. Each can have a different effect on a trauma-survivors behavior:

Adrenaline: Adrenaline can cause survivors to appear extremely energetic or anxious.

Natural opioids: Opioids can cause survivors to appear confused or dissociative.

Oxytocin: Opiates can cause survivors to appear amused or calm.

Trauma-responses can be complex and varied. However, very few certain trauma-responses are represented in our media and validated by our social systems.

What about trauma-informed care?

Trauma-informed care (TIC) does not have a single definition, but it is widely recognized as a cultural shift. TIC is an awareness of the prevalence of trauma in our society, and an understanding that the current systems in place have a tendency to re-traumatize individuals. TIC recognizes both the clinical symptoms of trauma, and the real-life signs.

Some of these signs and symptoms of trauma include (but are not limited to): anxiety, anger, distrust, hyper-defensiveness or vigilance, substance abuse, extreme shyness, isolation, projection, need for control, disorganization or hoarding, feelings of loneliness or depression, suicidality, perfectionism, aches and pains in the body (or somatization), paranoia, poor memory retention, and many more.

What are some ways to practice trauma-informed care?

Honor trauma reactions: Our understanding of trauma is far from complete. Whatever reaction or emotion a person is presenting in response to trauma is a valid trauma-response.

Advocacy, not rescue: Empowering trauma survivors is key to TIC. Most policies in place today tend to medicalize or criminalize survivors; recognizing these faults and centering survivor’s agency and resilience is essential.

Change policy and structures: Re-traumatizing can happen in our current systems because survivors are asked to constantly retell their story, undergo invasive procedures, are institutionalized or reduced to a statistic, and rarely have any opportunity to give feedback or make choices about their treatment. TIC requires changes to these policies and structures.

Again, this zine and blogpost are based on a workshop hosted by Ayana Wallace, facilitator and domestic-abuse survivor advocate. The workshop is titled, “Exploring Trauma Reactions, Allyship & Anti-Oppression Principles”

Additional sources include:

“What is Trauma-Informed Care?” by Trauma Informed Orgegon

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