The current situation is something that is unprecedented in most of our lives, scary and possibly overwhelming, at least on occasion. It is the term “overwhelming” that opens our eyes to seeing the current situation through a trauma lens. The benefit of doing so is to hopefully provide some insight into personal and interpersonal dynamics. Insight alone, while valuable, is not a stopping point but a tool toward having greater ability to access personal, interpersonal, and even system resources. And that is a primary goal for supporting persons impacted by trauma.
As a starting point it is important to know some fundamentals of trauma. Trauma has unfortunately become something of a buzz word and is applied very loosely and very widely. A simple definition of trauma can be very misleading but a definition in operational terms goes a little beyond the scope of this blog. (We discuss this in depth in class.) With that said, there are some important elements of trauma that are useful to know in understanding what we may be experiencing and seeing around us in the world.
First know that trauma is actually a continuum which is why it can be so confusing and simple definitions so misleading. The trauma continuum can be complex, especially when looking at the actual impact on one person versus the impact on another. We may think that someone at the initial stage of trauma would be less affected than someone at a more severe stage. But a person in the initial stage is not necessarily experiencing a lesser form of pain or discomfort. In the trauma world, overwhelm is overwhelm, and intensity of experience (the level of emotional and cognitive impact) is not something one can compare with any other stage or any other person.
For here is the second important element of the trauma continuum-everyone experiences trauma in a uniquely individual manner. Your personal history plays a major role in how susceptible or resilient you may be to certain specific types of traumatic situations. For example, someone who has a history of engaging with diseases in a strengthening way will likely be more resilient and less prone to be trauma impacted by COVID-19; but if your history was not strengthening and there were perhaps specific incidents that are “triggered” by the current situation, you may see or feel reactions in yourself that are larger than what others may be demonstrating. A very important note: while each person’s reaction/response to trauma is individual, a person’s unique response becomes even more pronounced in the more severe levels of trauma and recognizing a response as being trauma-triggered becomes even more important.
Supporting Persons Experiencing Trauma
Let me now identify the basic model of supporting persons experiencing trauma that is consistent within all successful models of working with persons impacted by trauma:
Step 1: Stabilize
If persons are in a state of overwhelm or being very reactive, support them in feeling safe. Examples of overwhelm can be seen as someone being very anxious and what appears to be hyper-reactive. But overwhelm can also manifest in just the opposite way and someone may be very unreactive and almost unresponsive to things that should elicit a response. Stabilize means helping the person move out of these two types of reactions known as hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal. Helping them feel as safe as possible while proceeding slowly and carefully is essential. Patience is key. While this is true for everyone, it is especially true for children. Important: for persons experiencing more severe levels of trauma response, professional help and support is needed.
Step 2: Provide for “Agency”
Agency is a term that covers a lot of ground. It is meant to include healing but also refers to a person being able to access personal, interpersonal, and external resources to help them address their trauma impact. In other words, they have “agency” in helping themselves and receiving help from others. One of the most profound impacts of trauma is the loss of agency and becoming isolated.
Step 3: Integration or Re-integration
What this means is actually applying the steps for becoming stable, and using resources (personal, interpersonal, and possibly system-level resources) when back in the world and dealing with recent events.
I hope some of this information is helpful for you. This is a time to be gentle with ourselves and others. Take care and be safe.
Mark Sideman has worked in the field of mental health and education for over 35 years and been a certified counselor in the state of Washington since 1989. Learn more about his class, Understanding Trauma: Dynamics, Impacts, and Interventions.