What Is Trauma-Informed Therapy?

Most of us will go through life with some form of trauma or another. It sounds bleak, but the numbers back this up -  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 61% of men and 51% of women in the US report experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Trauma is extremely commonplace, and because of that it’s extremely crucial to take trauma into account when receiving therapy. 

As you may expect, the effects of trauma can be complicated and hard to manage. This is where trauma-informed therapy comes in.

What is trauma? 

SAMHSA defines trauma thus: “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” Trauma can range from experiencing poverty and discrimination, neglect or abuse, to experiencing combat or torture. There’s no right or wrong way to experience trauma - if it was traumatic to you, even if you can’t name it, it’s trauma. 

Trauma-informed therapy, then, is when a therapist recognizes the complicated and complex ways that trauma influences all parts of someone’s life, body, and brain, and makes treatment decisions based on that framework. Trauma-informed therapists realize that most people have lived through some type of trauma because trauma is so common and understands treatment through that lens. 

Trauma triggers thoughts, desires, behaviors, emotions that are impossible to understand without a full grasp of how trauma plays a role. Trauma-informed therapists do understand the large role trauma plays in the daily lives of their clients. Going to therapy after suffering and surviving trauma requires trauma-informed care to get the best available treatment because trauma often has widespread effects that are more pervasive than many people understand. 

Trauma-informed therapy makes therapy more effective for folks who are living with the effects of trauma and can provide a container in which it can feel possible to heal (whatever healing means to each person!). Trauma informs many aspects of life, so understanding how trauma works plays a critical role in helping someone work through it. 

Obstacles to receiving trauma-informed therapy:

If trauma-informed care is so important, why would someone avoid trauma-informed care?

  • Don’t understand different kinds of therapy - Not everyone realizes that trauma-informed care is an option! It tends to be a buzzword that is thrown around a lot, but many people don’t actually know what it means. 

  • Not ready to face trauma - trauma is painful. Many folks simply aren’t ready to face their trauma yet. They may have developed coping strategies that make them feel like they’re doing fine without treatment for their trauma. However, for some this is may be putting off the inevitable - we can only do so much by ourselves, especially when dominant narratives around trauma are often victim/survivor blaming. Trauma-Informed therapy can step in when you need someone else’s support.

  • Embarrassed overall to need therapy -  there is still the idea that mental health issues are something to be ashamed of. Stigma can be powerful, and the shame many people feel about their mental illnesses can prevent them from seeking therapy. 

  • Don't understand what trauma really is - Trauma doesn’t just have to be war and death and destruction. It can be anything that makes you feel like you or someone you care about is in danger, or simply be a deeply distressing event. You don’t have to prove to anyone that you are traumatized enough to receive this type of care.

What are the characteristics of trauma-informed therapy? 

Now that we understand what Trauma-Informed Therapy does, let’s take a look at how it works. The hallmarks of Trauma-Informed Therapy are: 

  • A safe therapeutic environment emotionally and psychologically. 

    • Trauma makes you feel unsafe. In order to treat trauma, the therapeutic environment must be a safe one. The client should feel safe with the therapist. The room itself should be calm and relaxing and free of triggers. 

  • An understanding that behaviors developed to cope served an important purpose. 

    • Some people develop coping mechanisms that are overall detrimental to their health or wellbeing. A trauma-informed professional will help you to recognize that there’s nothing to be ashamed of for surviving. Your coping mechanisms have kept you alive and safe so far, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, we can be grateful and honor those survival skills.

  • Recovering from trauma is a main goal of this type of treatment. 

    • Trauma-Informed care not only looks at the surface level behaviors but aims to heal the underlying issue that causes them: the original trauma. Healing the trauma can lead to reducing or eliminating the coping behaviors that are causing distress. 

  • Teaching new coping skills. 

    • Healing trauma often includes learning about trauma and the impact of trauma. After that, a trauma-informed therapist will work with you to develop new coping skills and new ways of relating to and soothing your nervous system’s response to being activated. 

  • Collaboration. 

    • Your therapist works with you to provide your care. They should ask you what your goals are for treatment, and then work with you to form a plan to achieve them. You are an active participant in this type of therapy. 

How to find out if your therapist is trauma-informed 

The best way to find out if your therapist is trauma-informed is to ask! Ask your potential therapist what kind of training they have. If they say they’re trauma-informed, they should have some sort of training and experience to demonstrate this competency.

You can also get a sense of if someone is trauma-informed by the way they discuss the therapeutic process. If they talk a lot about safety, boundaries, and self-care, they may be trauma-informed. Additionally, some trauma-informed therapies include Internal Family Systems (IFS), Somatic Experiencing, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). These words and modalities can be an indicator that the therapist has been trained in trauma-informed therapy, but of course, it’s not definite. Again, the best way to find out if someone offers trauma-informed therapy is to ask. 

Trauma-informed therapy can be a total gamechanger for folks who have been managing their trauma without therapeutic help. Understanding the fundamental role that trauma plays in someone’s life, body, relationships, beliefs about themselves and the world, leads to more effective results and a safer environment for clients overall.