What’s Trauma Got to Do With It?


“Traumatized” is a word that gets tossed around a lot. At one time or another we’ve all been ‘traumatized’ by a sports team’s loss, a mortifying social experience, or a plot twist on our favorite show. But if we peel back the layers of pop culture references, what does it actually mean to be traumatized, and what does that mean for survivors of domestic violence? What does it mean to be trauma-informed in our work, and how would we do things differently if we weren’t?At its heart, a trauma-informed approach to services means to look at an individual in the context of their environment. In the case of domestic violence survivors, we are often dealing with people who have suffered physical, emotional, and psychological trauma that leaves scars both visible and invisible.

Trauma symptoms are among the less visible, and they are often the same things that kept a person alive during the worst of what happened to them. For example, someone suffering from a trauma might do what is called dissociating – detaching from whatever is happening to them in the moment. REACH’s clinical supervisor likens this to being in a medical coma. A doctor might put someone into a medical coma because their body needs a break. Similarly, when a person’s mind can’t process or handle what is happening to them, the mind copes by almost turning itself off, ‘checking out’, going somewhere else, in order to survive.

On one hand, it’s remarkable that our minds have the ability to protect us like this. The problem comes when this becomes a coping skill that can’t simply be shut off. If we’re not trauma-informed in our approach to domestic violence survivors, we only look at behaviors, choices in the here and now. A child in school might appear to not be paying attention, when in reality they are dissociating as a response to stress. With both children and adults, understanding someone’s behaviors in the context of their experiences opens up a host of possibilities for how we might help them cope moving forward.

In the day-to-day, being trauma-informed makes our work challenging. When things are stressful, the temptation is always to refer back to a black and white way of looking at things. Being trauma-informed means living in the gray much of the time. It means being flexible, thoughtful. It means being aware of the importance of relationships to a traumatized individual – that they need that ongoing support, so we never consider someone’s case ‘closed’. This makes our advocates’ case loads larger and their work days more unpredictable. In the long term, being trauma informed makes our work more effective.

It’s also important in the course of our work with an individual to remember that domestic violence is often one of many traumas that a survivor may have faced. This story from a REACH shelter advocate from several years ago illustrates the value of a trauma-informed approach to services:

Last week, the resident who had been at our program the longest moved into her new apartment through a local housing authority.  She came to our house last year.  She was 22, several months pregnant, and had a 3 year old daughter.  She came to REACH because she had been physically assaulted by her boyfriend when he found out she was pregnant.  After she arrived we learned more about her history and many other instances of violence and abuse in her past.  She was tough – her immediate impulse whenever threatened or scared was to defer to physical violence.  She was angry and demanding and often tested the patience of the people around her.         

Since she was in our house for an extended period of time, she had to attend our domestic violence support group for many months.  She would constantly roll her eyes and complain about groups, every week trying to give a new creative reason to get out of it.  After a while, she expressed that groups were hard because they made her think about hard things.  I gave her gimp and other things she could manipulate with her hands, which can help take some of the pressure off the hard topics.  She then started to chime in and participate.  She talked about her anger regarding her abuser and started processing the concepts about domestic violence that she was learning. 

A few months ago we were driving home from getting her a childcare voucher and discussing a new relationship she had begun and how it was going so far.  She mentioned a fight they had and said casually, “I thought about our communication styles, and remembered what we had talked about in support group.  I know I can be aggressive, but I want to be assertive instead and so I just told him what made me angry.  It worked.”  She continued to talk about the relationship and how she was monitoring it for red flags (signs that he might be abusive) and she explained what she was looking for and how she had expressed that to him, which we had also discussed in many groups.  “See?” She said, “I listened!” 

She received a scholarship from an organization that helps survivors of domestic violence and has been attending school to be a hair stylist. She can still be tough, but because she was at a program like REACH, staff saw the trauma behind her toughness and met her there and worked with her through it. Her aggressiveness was learned through her experiences, and learning new coping skills to deal with anger and sadness is just as possible.  Being able to see her progress from the day I picked her up at a police station to the day we stuffed the U-Haul full of furniture from donors made me so grateful to work for an organization like REACH.  Her story is the perfect example of the strength and importance of our mission to understand how trauma affects survivors and to work within it to concretely and organically improve lives.

For more on trauma and trauma-informed care, visit: http://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma.asp