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November 16, 2023

Trauma-Informed Practice: How Experiences Influence Behaviour 

A look at what trauma is, what ‘trauma-informed practice’ means, and how experiences influence behaviour.

In one way or another, all of our past experiences – including traumatic ones – shape our behaviour in the here and now. To offer the best support to the individuals we care for, we need to recognise how experiences influence behaviour, and understand what effective trauma-informed care looks like. Most importantly, we need to understand what trauma is.

Trauma explained

Trauma is the result of an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as distressing, harmful or life-threatening. We tend to associate the word ‘trauma’ with major events or situations like sexual and physical abuse, being the victim of violent crime, or the death of a loved one, but trauma is, in fact, a much broader term encompassing many different scenarios, such as neglect, bullying or having your feelings continually invalidated. Gabor Maté, esteemed Canadian physician, author and trauma expert, writes in ‘The Myth of Normal’,

Trauma is not what happens to you; it is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.

While they may differ in nature, duration and magnitude, all types of trauma have the capacity to cause serious and long-lasting damage. The enduring and adverse effects of trauma can limit individuals’ ability to thrive mentally, physically, socially, emotionally and spiritually.

Types of trauma

There are three main types of trauma:

    • Acute trauma, which results from a single incident

    • Chronic trauma, which is repeated and prolonged

    • Complex trauma, which is exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature

When an experience has been painful in the past, individuals can respond to similar situations with anxiety. People who have been repeatedly abused, failed, hurt, and humiliated can find it increasingly difficult to build positive relationships. Instead, they may test new relationships to destruction, or sabotage attempts to learn a new skill. This can reinforce their suspicions of new people and new things.

Some individuals may be affected by a fear of failure, which prevents them from taking risks when they are presented with opportunities to learn new skills or form new relationships.

Vicarious trauma: ‘the cost of caring’

Working in educational, health and social care settings, we often support individuals who have been severely traumatised in the past. Over time, repeatedly witnessing service users’ pain, distress and suffering can impact our own mental health and cause ‘vicarious’ trauma. So, when considering effective trauma-informed practice, we also need to be aware of staff and colleagues’ experiences and the kinds of support they might need.

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