The concept of trauma-informed care is popular in mental health treatment today. What does trauma-informed care mean, and why is it important for you to find therapy programs that include it? Read on to learn more.
This article is for information purposes only. Consult a doctor or therapist for medical or mental health advice.
What the Definition of Trauma-Informed Care?
Q: What does “trauma informed care” mean?
A: Trauma-informed care is mental health treatment that is sensitive to the needs of people who have experienced a traumatic event or ongoing life-altering stressful situations.
Trauma-informed care means instead of asking, “What is wrong with this person?”, treatment providers ask, “What happened to this person?”
This is a big shift in thinking because instead of focusing on mental health issues as only a disease or character flaw, the focus is on considering the stressful life events that may contribute to a person acting in the ways that they do.
Trauma-informed care has these goals:
- Know the widespread impact of trauma and find paths for recovery
- Recognize the sign of trauma in patients and families
- Integrate understanding about trauma into policies and practices
- Avoid re-traumatization.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is experienced anytime you are in a situation that is beyond your resources to handle. What is traumatic to one person may not be traumatic to another person. A seemingly minor situation is still traumatic to the person experiencing it if it’s beyond their ability to handle and assimilate.
You don’t get to choose what your brain considers trauma. Even if you think a situation is “no so bad”, your body and brain might still store it as a traumatic experience.
Trauma can be things we typically consider traumatic:
- Abuse (physical, mental, emotional, sexual)
- Domestic violence
- Natural disaster
- Traumatic experiences such as being robbed or in a car accident
- Systematic abuse or racism
But trauma is not limited to these. Other situations that could also be traumatic include:
- Seeing others hurt or witnessing their abuse
- Social situations that create anxiety
- Medical conditions
- Separation from loved ones
- Lack of resources so that basic needs (such as food or shelter) are unmet
Any of these can be traumatic and have long-lasting effects.
Trauma is especially devastating to children because they are not yet equipped to manage their emotions. As children we are egocentric (centered on ourselves) as a normal part of development. We assume that anything bad that happens to us is our fault.
Research has shown that early childhood trauma affects the way the brain of the child develops.
This is one reason why situations we experience as children often continue to affect us as adults. An important part of recovery is replacing self-blame with compassion and understanding.
How Trauma Leads to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Mental Health Issues
When a person experiences trauma, some people then develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We often think of PTSD as something that happens to veterans of war, and this is how it was first recognized.
Yet we have come to understand that many more people, including children, experience PTSD due to traumatic life events.
According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of PTSD include:
- Being easily startled or frightened.
- Always being on guard for danger.
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior.
- Overwhelming guilt or shame.
Trauma Triggers and Re-traumatization
Trauma triggers are when a person is “taken back” mentally or emotionally to the feelings of the original trauma, even if they aren’t in danger. Triggers are physical or sensory sensations such as a specific noise, smell, or touch that reminds the person (often subconsciously) of the original overwhelming event.
Re-traumatization happens when a person experiences more trauma due to their ongoing behaviors or situations. For example, a child who has PTSD may act out aggressively which necessitates being restrained by treatment program staff. Being restrained is traumatic and can lead to further trauma. This can create a cycle of trauma that needs to be addressed and managed.
What are the Trauma-Informed Care Principles?
Trauma-informed care seeks to provide healing from PTSD, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the effects of trauma. The goal is to promote wellness and wholeness without triggering trauma or causing re-traumatization.
The Five Guiding Principles of trauma-informed care (best practices for PTSD) include:
This approach uses trauma sensitive language with a focus on interventions that focus on healing what happened to the person, rather than only a diagnosis or illness.
Treatment programs that have a trauma understanding model provide initial and ongoing training for leaders, therapists and staff to be sure they are all working from the guiding principles of trauma-informed care.
There are several models of trauma-informed care including:
- The 5 guiding principles of trauma therapy (above),
- The 4 Rs of trauma informed care (Realization, Recognize, Respond, Resist retraumatizing)
- The 3Es of trauma (Event and Experience related characteristics that predict mental health Effects)
- and others.
No one model is better than another. What’s most important when considering therapy or treatment programs, including residential treatment, is that the program understands and addresses trauma.
If you are seeking care for a child, teen, or adult, be sure that the program you choose is trauma-informed. This includes the system understanding and educating it’s staff about trauma, looking at treatment through the eyes of trauma-awareness, recognizing triggers and seeking not to re-traumatize. This leads to the best possible outcomes, healing, and behavior improvements.
Do you have a question about trauma treatment? Share in the comments below.