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Trauma-Informed Response for Survivors: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated: Feb 27

I was recently introduced to an organization called SAMHSA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They published a guide in 2014 called SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Many of the authors I’ve been following of late reference this guide and for good reason! It’s full of valuable information and researched best practices when helping those who have experienced trauma. We know trauma is complex and it is impossible to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to care, that’s not what this is. The guide serves as a foundation for care provided by individuals, organizations, and even healthcare agencies. 

The entire guide is available for download here, but I have summarized the key points and have related it to my own experience, primarily in the church. Learning the six key principles outlined in this guide has also motivated me to make a few adjustments concerning Butterfly Way which will be important to understand as I go forward. This is another slightly longer article than I usually write, I appreciate you hanging in there with me!

I sometimes find conversations about what trauma is to be challenging. The word trauma in some cases has been used inappropriately and therefore has watered down the meaning and impact for those of us who are healing. How trauma is experienced is unique to every person. What overwhelms one person’s nervous system will not necessarily cause the same response in someone else. SAMHSA has a great definition of trauma, probably the best I’ve come across. It captures the individual aspect of trauma and points to the broad impact it can have. 

“Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

They explain that an event can include actual or extreme threat of physical or psychological harm (i.e. natural disasters, violence, etc.) or severe life-threatening neglect for a child that jeopardizes healthy development. I have noticed along the way there is a tendency to picture the very worst-case scenario here which can undermine the experience of the person and make certain situations tempting to dismiss.

For that reason, it is only the individual’s experience of these events or circumstances that determines whether it is a traumatic event or not. How the individual labels, assigns meaning to and is disrupted physically and psychologically by an event will contribute to whether or not it is experienced as traumatic.

The long-lasting adverse effects of the event are a critical component of trauma. These adverse effects may occur immediately or may have a delayed onset. Examples include an individual’s inability to cope with the normal stresses and strains of daily living; to trust and benefit from relationships, regulate emotions and behaviour, hyper-vigilance, or going numb. There are also neurobiological and environmental factors as well.

A person’s response to a traumatic event is neither right nor wrong, it just is. How information is processed through our brain and body, especially in a state of stress, isn’t something that can be readily controlled. It simply isn’t helpful and in most cases, can be harmful to judge a person’s experience as right or wrong. Frankly, as a support person, it doesn’t matter what you think about it, it only matters that you show up with empathy and support.

What is becoming known as “trauma-informed care” or “trauma-informed approach” is a framework regarded by trauma researchers, practitioners, and survivors as essential to the context of care in any sector - a Doctor’s office, school, or church/ministry for example. This trauma-informed approach is grounded in a set of four assumptions and six key principles.

The key assumptions in a trauma-informed approach is that all people at all levels of the organization/system have a basic realization about trauma and understand how it affects families, groups, communities as well as individuals. People within these organizations can recognize the signs of trauma and respond by applying the principles of a trauma-informed approach to all areas of functioning. It also seeks to resist the re-traumatization of the people they serve as well as staff and volunteers.

Does this sound too good to be true? Where is this place and how do I get there? 

Organizations often inadvertently create stressful or toxic environments that interfere with the recovery of the people they serve, the well-being of staff, and the fulfillment of the organizational mission. Staff and volunteers who work within a trauma-informed environment are taught to recognize how organizational practices may trigger painful memories and re-traumatize people with trauma histories. This has been a bone of contention of mine for a very long time although I didn’t have the language, maturity, or health awareness to grasp what my issues were fully. I’ve been labeled a rebel because I often buck up against systems and rules that are oppressive, just plain stupid, and at worst, hurt people.

The principles SAMHSA has outlined would prevent so much of that toxicity and people might get the help they need if this culture existed in the places we frequent and turn to for support. The six principles are safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutualityempowerment, voice and choice, and cultural, historical, and gender issues.

Safety: Throughout the organization, staff and the people they serve feel physically and psychologically safe; the physical setting is safe, and interpersonal interactions promote a sense of safety. Understanding safety as defined by those served is a high priority. 

That’s a BIG deal. I want to repeat that last part: understanding safety as defined by those served is a high priority. If you don’t think it’s safe, it isn’t. If something feels off and your spidey sense has the hairs on the back of your neck on alert - it’s not safe. And if you don’t feel safe, no matter where you are, you can choose to leave.

Trustworthiness and Transparency: Operations and decisions are conducted with transparency with the goal of building and maintaining trust.

This is one of my motivations for sharing this with you. I shared in my last blog some of the things I have been wrestling with, specifically around being a Pastor. The other thing is that I lost sight of (or maybe didn’t have a clear view of) who this is for.

Butterfly Way is for you and me.

Sometimes my writing has been directed at the people and organizations that have hurt me, as a plea to wake up and see the hurting people RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU! You might notice a few directed comments still sneak into my writing but I'm no longer writing to them. I realize it’s too big of a ship for this little fish to steer or change, but I can change me and I can hopefully help a few people as I wrestle with what that looks like. If you’ve been following along with me for a while, I’m sorry if I confused you at times. I want to build and maintain trust in every aspect of my life and with Butterfly Way.   

Peer Support: Peer support and mutual self-help are key vehicles for establishing safety and hope, building trust, enhancing collaboration, and utilizing their stories and lived experiences to promote recovery and healing. Peers have also been referred to as “trauma survivors.”

It’s way easier (and safer!) to talk to someone who has experience with trauma and has acknowledged its impact on their own life. When I started going to Vox Community Church about 10 years ago I met with Nathan, the Pastor because I felt like a problem had descended onto his congregation - the problem was me. I told him what my experiences in church had been and why I was reluctant to try again, while also blaming myself for the abuse I had suffered. His response? “Christina, I am so so sorry you were treated that way. Those people were not representing Jesus when they said and did those things. You’re not alone, there are a lot of people who have had similar experiences who are in our church. We just seem to find each other.” Since we’ve moved, I went to a different church where I thought we might be able to connect and after some time, decided to share some of my journey with the Pastor. His response? “Well you know, sometimes when people have repeated experiences the problem is with the person, not the church.” Ok, we’re done here. That kind of environment and attitude isn’t safe for me and if you know a thing or two about trauma, you would understand why.

Collaboration and Mutuality: Demonstrates that healing happens in relationships and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision-making. Recognizes that everyone has a role to play in a trauma-informed approach. 

Anything that has a top-down authority model is going to struggle with this concept. A top-down system is based in power and control and isn’t trauma-informed because if they were you would see the leveling of power differences. So rather than vertical leadership, it would be horizontal, and regardless of your position, relationships are the priority and your contribution to decision-making is valued.

Empowerment, Voice, and Choice: Recognizes the experience of trauma may be a unifying aspect in the lives of those who run the organization and those who come for assistance/support. Understands the importance of power differentials and ways in which clients, historically, have been diminished in voice and choice and are often recipients of coercive treatment. Staff are facilitators of recovery rather than controllers of recovery.

This point inspired me to change Butterfly Way’s focus, at least the way I communicate it. It has been, “an emerging New Venture focused on coming alongside people who have experienced trauma in loving and supportive ways.” I think it implies a power differential by unintentionally communicating I have something you need that you don’t have ready access to. Maybe. I mean, if you think you need time in a small cabin in the woods and you don’t already have one in your backyard, I can accommodate that for you, but I wholeheartedly believe we are each capable of determining what we need to heal. Sometimes our peers can help us with that because healthy relationships are vital to healing. I can be an ally. You are in the driver's seat of your own recovery, as am I for mine.

Based on that conviction, Butterfly Way’s focus is now:

Butterfly Way Muskoka is an emerging New Venture focused on trauma-responsive

healing and spiritual practices.

Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues: Actively moving beyond stereotypes and biases based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, geography, etc., develops policies, protocols, and processes that are responsive to the needs of individuals served, recognizing and addressing historical trauma.

In the interest of trustworthiness and transparency, this is an important point. I am licensed with a denomination that doesn’t affirm LGBTQ2S+ and I know that will limit my trustworthiness for some of you. I understand in the simplest sense, affirming people and places are deemed to be safe and non-affirming are not. For what it’s worth, I just want you to know when it comes to cultural, historical, and gender issues, I am aware, I am actively learning and moving beyond stereotypes and biases. I know how important safety is to you because it’s important to me too. My experience with the church in general ranges from the good to the bad to the ugly, and like other dysfunctional families and trauma, it’s complicated. I just wanted you to know that upfront.

These key assumptions and principles from now on will inform what is designed, built, and shared through Butterfly Way because we all need a safe place to land at times along the way. 

Until next time.

à Dieu


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