For some people, therapy is a loaded word defined by cliches. Pop culture is full of images of what a therapist might look like, how they might act, or what an experience in their office might be like. Rarely do people get an image of trauma-informed therapy.
Maybe you’ve even seen a show where the client and therapist had an antagonistic relationship. Perhaps you’ve seen a movie that makes you think you could never go to therapy. The creators are looking to further a story, not accurately representing therapy.
Before determining if trauma-informed therapy is right for you, it’s essential to know what it is, the barriers to accessing it, and the techniques that guide that type of care.
Trauma and Trauma-Informed Therapy
Trauma has a broad definition, and the way it impacts a person depends on how that person interprets what happened to them in the past. It can be a one-time event, multiple events, or a long-lasting series of events.
Some potentially traumatic events include bullying, discrimination, assault, abuse, grief, poverty, accidents, natural disasters, or lack of attunement with your primary caregivers. All of these things can create long-lasting effects. They can shape how a person views the world and interacts with others, including mental health professionals.
Trauma-informed therapists approach the client with the complete picture of the client’s life in mind. A basic tenet of this type of care is switching the focus from “What’s wrong with you” to “What happened to you?” This shifts the focus of therapy from the patient’s current state to what happened to them and lets that knowledge guide their care.
A key goal of trauma-informed care is to prevent the client’s re-traumatization. To do this, therapists and counselors try to understand the effect trauma had on the client, and from there, they devise a treatment plan to help them recover.
Barriers to Trauma-Informed Therapy
Even though trauma-informed therapy can be incredibly beneficial, not everyone chooses this type of therapy. There are many reasons a person chooses one form of treatment instead of another. Below are some of the most common reasons a person doesn’t choose trauma-informed therapy.
Many people believe that trauma can only happen in extreme circumstances, like war. But in reality, trauma is anything that makes you feel like you or someone you love is in danger. Because people may fail to see their experiences as traumatic, they may continue to ignore their trauma.
Unaware of Types of Therapy
If you’ve never been to a therapist before or simply aren’t aware of all the treatment options out there, you may not know that trauma-informed therapy exists. And even if you’ve heard of it, it may not seem like much more than a buzzword if you haven’t heard anything else about it. You’re unlikely to choose what you don’t know about or understand.
Unprepared to Face Trauma
Trauma can be extremely painful — emotionally, mentally, and even physically. Many people struggle to seek help for trauma because they believe that speaking about it will reopen old wounds. And many people have devised coping mechanisms to help them deal with the trauma. They may think just coping is good enough. Even though a person can create their own healthy coping mechanisms, no one has to heal from trauma alone.
Unwilling to Seek Therapeutic Help
In many cultures and settings, seeking mental health care or speaking about mental health can be taboo. Some people are unwilling to call a counselor because of the stigma attached to it, or because they feel an immense amount of shame about needing help. They have to get beyond these false beliefs before they’re ready to seek help.
Guiding Assumptions of Trauma-Informed Therapy
Trauma-informed care is based on some guiding assumptions. Even though every client is different and no two clients have experienced the same trauma, these guiding assumptions create an environment conducive to better care for all clients.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 4 Rs of Trauma-Informed Care are:
- Realization of how trauma can affect people and groups
- Recognizing signs of trauma
- Responding with a trauma-informed system
- Resisting re-traumatizing clients
Techniques of Trauma-Informed Therapy
In addition to the four guiding assumptions, five principles guide trauma-informed therapy. These five techniques enable healthcare providers to create a system that focuses on the patient and their life experiences to help them through trauma recovery.
Therapists and counselors who work in trauma-informed settings actively ensure their clients are emotionally and physically safe in the therapy environment. Because these clients may have experienced past trauma, ensuring their safety at the outset can make them feel more comfortable.
Collaboration is essential in trauma-informed therapy. Rather than creating a strict protocol, the therapist and client work together to create a plan. This method relies more on empathy and intuition rather than stringent rules. It allows each client to create a unique treatment plan based on their needs.
Therapists and counselors need to show they are trustworthy in a trauma-informed environment. This trust helps clients open up and share information that makes them feel vulnerable. Having consistent boundaries and clear expectations are great ways to build trust.
Because some traumatic experiences can make people feel out of control, trauma-informed care can actively empower people by making choices in their treatment. These choices can be as simple as determining what level of care they want for that session or even what they’ll talk about that day.
Trauma-informed therapy empowers people to discover new strengths and build on those they already had. They develop a solid foundation to fall back on and healthier coping mechanisms.
Is Trauma-Informed Therapy Right for You?
Before you seek help from a therapist or recovery program, it’s essential to ask whether trauma-informed therapy is right for you. Trauma, when left untreated, can worsen. Everyone has experienced the trauma of some kind. If that trauma has been left unprocessed, it can affect all areas of your life.
Unprocessed trauma can prevent you from having healthy relationships, hinder your ability to work or attend school, and increase your risk of a substance use disorder. If you’ve experienced addiction, ongoing depression, or anxiety, or even if you’re hesitant to try therapy, past trauma could be the reason.