What is trauma?
Traumatic experiences may involve a threat to your life or your safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed, frightened and helpless can result in trauma, even if you don’t get physically hurt. And remember, it doesn’t matter if anyone ELSE thinks the event or situation is traumatic, it only matters what YOU feel about it.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by:
- One-time events, like an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.
- Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden area, poverty, a life-threatening illness or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.
- Other things we don’t typically think of, such as surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel to you.
During the course of a lifetime, almost all of us will be exposed to traumatic events and everyday stressors. We are going to get sick or lose a pet and people we love will leave us or die.
While we all have to learn to deal with the effects of hard things and bad experiences, some people have far more trauma in their lives than others. They live with toxic stressors, they are part of a marginalized community or they are dealing with intergenerational trauma, where trauma is passed down through families.
Historical trauma can also occur when a group shares a traumatic experience (like slavery, the Holocaust, Residential Schooling or the Sixties Scoop) and the effects are passed on genetically or behaviourally to the next generations.
What does experiencing trauma do to us?
Trauma (especially sustained trauma) systematically affects both our bodies and our brains, and it can result in long term behavioural and health issues – from having difficulty regulating emotions to impulsive behaviours to frequent illness and chronic exhaustion.
Traumatic stress can severely impact a participant’s ability to learn, function in social environments and manage their emotions and behaviors. Knowing the biology behind actions and behaviours can help us empathize and provide the right support in the moment, instead of reacting or judging.
What can we do?
Being aware matters. It will help you navigate actions and behaviour with compassion. We are only scratching the surface here. Seek out organizations that are developing resources to help guide their client work through this lens. As we become more trauma aware as a culture, more and more documents and webpages are being created by social service, education and healthcare organizations and many of these are easily available on the internet.
Provide stability in your class and in the relationships with your participants. Because relationships matter. A lot. But let’s be honest. You can’t fix it. You may have people in front of you who are dealing with a lifetime of trauma and you, by yourself, are not equipped to take that on. But here’s the thing. The three key principles for being trauma aware are the following.
Build safety and trust – physically and psychologically.
Give choice and voice to all. Provide opportunity for people to express themselves in their own way. Preface activities with something like “if anything I am inviting you to do doesn’t feel safe or is triggering for you, you have permission to not do it.”
- Build safety and trust – physically and psychologically.
- Give choice and voice to all. Provide opportunity for people to express themselves in their own way. Preface activities with something like “if anything I am inviting you to do doesn’t feel safe or is triggering for you, you have permission to not do it.”
- Look for strengths and resilience. Build on the good that is already present.
These are foundational beliefs for the CiU program. In addition, there are things that have been proven to help people heal from trauma, and CiU builds many of these things into the very fabric of the program, for example:
- a clear focus on developing self-awareness which is a key ingredient in the healing process
- providing a safe, stable and inclusive environment for growth
- experience based approaches that empower individuals and help them develop a sense of mastery in their lives
- directly teaching self-regulation techniques to deal with the neurobiological effects of the trauma response
- promoting and including self-care practices such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises that have now been proven effective in healing trauma
- using restorative practices and not zero tolerance, which re-builds a belief in fairness and gives participants as many opportunities as needed to build their own capacity