As I learn more about the effects of trauma on us individually and collectively, I am making HeartWorks offerings more and more trauma-informed. While the concept of being trauma-informed is not new, it is receiving heightened awareness right now through the work of folks like David Treleaven (Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness) and Zabie Yamasaki (Trauma-Informed Yoga). There is more education for professionals around how to be sensitive to the effects of trauma when working with clients, students and patients, and, as human beings with trauma in our personal story, we are talking about how to navigate trauma’s effects more sensitively and skillfully in community. As we collect together and journey together, we can support each other in our individual healing.
The US National Center for Trauma-Informed Care outlines the principles of a trauma-informed approach for organizations and teachers. A trauma-informed approach:
- Realizes the widespread impact of trauma;
- Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in community members;
- Understands potential roads of recovery;
- Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
- Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.
Here’s my unpacking of what those principles mean in practice…
Realizing the widespread impact
A trauma-informed approach realizes the widespread impact of trauma. Trauma affects individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) showed that childhood trauma was very common amongst all groups of people in American society – two thirds of the 17,000 people in the ACE Study had an ACE score of at least one, meaning they experienced at least one kind of trauma in their childhood. Developmental or toxic trauma experienced as a child influences how we navigate our way through the world and how we understand what it means to be a human being. Coping strategies and neural pathways forged during development (especially before the age of 7) inform our stress responses for the rest of our lives. What kept us safe as a child becomes our go-to strategy as an adult in similarly triggering events, regardless of new contexts, new power structures and new physical, psychological, emotional and social abilities.
We live in a society experiencing a pandemic of traumatic stress. The Sidran Traumatic Stress Institute reports that 70% of Americans have experienced something traumatic in our lives (meaning we had an experience where our emotional coping skills could not keep up with the reality of threat to our safety) and up to 20% of us go on to develop some kind of post-traumatic stress problem that affects our ability to function (like PTSD).
Recognizing sign and symptoms
A trauma-informed approach recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in community members. Given the widespread nature of trauma and our individual traumatic stress adaptations, many of us are not even aware that we are responding from a protective place in response to stress from our past. We move through our day aware that we’d like to be happier, but not knowing why we are not happy and not knowing what we need to address in order to move toward more emotional freedom. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and trauma in our body is an important step towards finding that freedom. We need to know what is burdening us before we can offload it.
Loving ourselves as we notice the signs and symptoms of trauma and stress in our body helps us set boundaries and offer ourselves permission to be healthy. In his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope writes, “As we begin to re-experience a visceral reconnection with the needs of our bodies, there is a brand new capacity to warmly love the self. We experience a new quality of authenticity in our caring, which redirects our attention to our health, our diets, our energy, our time management.”
In Somatic Self-Compassion we actively develop affectionate awareness: kindly noticing our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and body signals including those that indicate that it’s time to close and protect ourselves from re-traumatization.
Roads of Recovery
A trauma-informed approach understands potential roads of recovery. Recovery happens through learning to skillfully and safely connect with ourselves and with others so that we have resources to support our healing and our ongoing emotional resiliency. Somatic Self-Compassion supports us in cultivating courageous connection: showing up for ourselves as we learn about and validate our stress responses in service of our own wellbeing and the health of our relationships with ourselves, our community, nature and spirit.
Connecting in community is an important part of healing from trauma. Being included in community helps us to show up for ourselves and to realize that we are not alone in our experiences of traumatic stress. Much of our suffering arises in relationship and it can also be healed in relationship – but we don’t need to return to the original relationship that served the original suffering – our body understands connection from:
- another person,
- relationships with animals,
- connection to spirit,
- connection with nature.
All of these kinds of connection can help repair any disconnections we may have experienced in the past. If I can take care of my connection needs as an adult, I have a chance of letting go of the pain of not having those needs met as a child or in a previous relationships.
In addition to connecting in community, connecting with our body is essential for working with trauma. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of the book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, after the events of 9/11, asserted that talk therapy alone is not enough to address traumatic stress-related problems. He writes, “You can be fully in charge of your life only if you can acknowledge the reality of your body, in all its visceral dimensions.” We need to address the level of body experience as well as mental experience in order to heal.
Most of us need to re-learn how to get in touch with our body. The experience of Strozzi Institute instructors who teach the Embodied Leadership curriculum is that around 80% of participants need to be reintroduced to their body as a source of information, a reality that likely extends to the general population. One of our survival mechanisms, according to Dr van der Kolk, is to dissociate from our bodies as a way to manage stress. Given the many stressors we experience every day, many of us have forgotten how to tune in to our bodies (for good reason).
We need to re-acquaint ourselves with our body safely. Many modalities of healing work have emerged over past years to help us get back in touch with our body safely. The soft animal of our body needs to be treated with wisdom and compassion, especially when it is learning to recover from stress.
Awareness of body experience is not enough: self-compassion is the missing piece. As Dr. Christopher Germer writes, “… just noticing what’s happening is often not enough. We need to embrace ourselves. While mindfulness tells us, “Hold your suffering in spacious awareness,” the wisdom of self-compassion says, “Be kind to yourself when you suffer.” Self-kindness opens a new path to healing. Warmth creates space. Mindfulness invites us to ask, “What am I experiencing right now?” Self-compassion invites us to ask, “What do I need right now?””
A trauma-informed approach responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices. HeartWorks vision and mission is to free us from old patterns of suffering and to support each other in collecting tools for self-understanding and emotional resilience through connection with a community of self-compassion practitioners. Old patterns of suffering are collected through successful adaptations to traumatic stress that are no longer serving our happiness in the present moment.
There are many ways we can assist ourselves and our community members to feel safe during a group gathering and whenever they connect with the community. Examples of how knowledge about trauma is integrated into HeartWorks programs include:
- Programs are often limited in participant number so that everyone in the group has the opportunity to feel seen and heard. This is in response to the knowledge that feeling lost in the crowd can be triggering for those of us with trauma in our story.
- Regardless of resources, everyone is invited to HeartWorks programs. As long as a program is suited to an individual’s learning needs at the time, everyone can access programs at a rate that works for them. The upcoming Gift Economy Somatic Self-Compassion program invites participants to choose the level of financial investment that resonates for them.
- Somatic Self-Compassion starts by developing community agreements and group safety signals that offer a container of safety from the very start.
- I make it very clear that trauma is part of the conversation in HeartWorks programs. In recognition of the shame and stigma that can be associated with talking about trauma, I seek to be transparent about how I hold conversations about trauma. HeartWorks programs are designed to bring conversations about trauma into community spaces in service of knowledge, shared humanity and healing.
- Practices in HeartWorks programs offer choice in level and type of engagement. Being in a place of choice is really important in tending to traumatic stress. When we feel safe, we are able to explore our emotional experience, and we feel safe when we know we have agency and autonomy.
A trauma-informed approach seeks to actively resist re-traumatization. The policies, procedures and practices mentioned above are active ways to resist re-traumatization in HeartWorks community members. Programs cannot guarantee we won’t be triggered, but I endeavor to set a container for us that offers as much protection as I can from us being triggered, while at the same time allowing us to move within our window of tolerance in service of learning about our body and collecting tools to tend to our stress.
In order to strengthen our emotional resiliency, we need to stay in touch with our bodies. Research shows that we are more prone to stress when we are not aware of our bodies. Those of us with lower levels of emotional resiliency also have lower levels of body awareness (interoception). If we can’t obtain information about what’s not working for our body (in times of stress), we can’t then identify what would work for our body (what our body needs) and we are less able to adapt to difficult situations because we don’t have the information we need to act.
Maintaining self-compassionate body practices moves us through the rest of our life with grace and courage. Maintenance is the key to a successful ongoing practice: Learning about our core values and continually reaffirming our soul’s purpose helps us to stick to a regimen of self-care that helps us actively resist re-traumatization because we see our practice in the context of our life goals. Ongoing community support and developing beautiful daily rituals for ourselves shepherds us through our lives with support and a sense of meaningful connection. Ongoing practice builds and maintains our emotional resilience muscle. One-by-one we change the cultural paradigm of stress, and as we do that we give others the permission to do the same!
In Somatic Self-Compassion we cultivate radical response: re-parenting ourselves through self-soothing, self-inquiry, permission-giving and catalyzing new behavior in response to stress. New behaviors help us to set boundaries that keep us safe and help us prevent re-traumatization.
New organizational behaviors include learning from instances of triggering or re-traumatization within community members and responding swiftly to address the stress in the situation at hand and into the future. I, like many of us, am learning as I go – I don’t have all the answers because the answers lie in responding emergently to each situation as it arises. As we uncover the effects of trauma in ourselves and in our community, we can’t know what we might find. Transparency, honesty, courage, willingness to be in the emergent field, and loads of self-compassion are what’s needed to move skillfully through a trauma-informed environment.
If you’re interested in exploring a trauma-informed approach for yourself or your clients, you might like to join us at Somatic Self-Compassion Online. If you are interested in learning how to embody a trauma-informed approach, you could check out the Embodied Trauma-Informed Contemplative Teaching program online. In 2020 I’ll be growing the HeartWorks trauma-informed training online and in person, so stay tuned! We’d love to see you there!