What is Trauma?
As a thanatologist and keynote speaker, my goal is to provide insight and practical tips on being trauma-informed and vicariously trauma-informed. Let’s look at trauma, which is described as an occurrence that takes place in a client’s life that they perceive as distressing or disturbing to the point where it affects how they function (Dombo & Sabatino, 2019).
According to SAMHSA’s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative, “trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (SAMHSA, 2012, p. 2).
Comparatively, the American Psychological Association (2021) defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event that includes initial reactions (e.g., shock, denial), and longer-term reactions (e.g., flashbacks, headaches, nausea, strained relationships).
Trauma exposure can cause neurobiological alterations that disrupt the body’s stress response mechanisms and impede the brain’s capacity to process trauma (Nemeroff and Binder 2014).
Perhaps this is why some coaching sessions are so difficult.
Sources of Trauma: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Traumatic Events, and Ongoing Trauma
As a coach, you may find yourself helping a client who has experienced a past trauma.
Perhaps they have a high ACEs score. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) focus on traumatic events during childhood, such as violence, abuse, a family member’s suicide, substance misuse in the home, a parent with mental illness, an incarcerated parent, or parental loss (CDC, 2020).
Alternatively, the client may have experienced ongoing trauma throughout their life or experienced a recent traumatic experience.
Whatever the source of the trauma, as you explore the meaning of the event, the conversation will likely move to the effects the trauma has had on them. You may recognize that the current challenges they face are impacted by their traumatic event(s). As you listen to their narrative, you realize that trauma has changed their beliefs about themselves, others, and their world.
In coaching, there is the potential for retraumatizing the client if you are not aware of trauma-informed practices. For that reason, let’s look at what it means to be trauma-informed.
The phrase “trauma-informed” was coined by Harris and Fallot in 2001 to describe social, behavioral, and mental health services that take into consideration the possibility that a person may have previously experienced trauma (Harris et al., 2001).
Recent studies have characterized trauma-informed care by six principles: safety, trust, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural consideration.
- Safety: trauma-informed practice ensures that a client feels safe in a physical setting, as well as emotionally and psychologically safe while working with you.
- Trustworthiness: trauma-informed practice focuses on transparency (e.g., the client is well-informed about goals and boundaries) which builds trust in themselves and an ability to manage their feelings.
- Peer Support: trauma-informed practice recognizes that they are not alone and that they can rely on peers (“trauma survivors”) to share their experiences.
- Collaboration: trauma-informed practice focuses on clients as partners, working together and building a relationship with a professional to achieve a goal with shared decision-making.
- Empowerment: trauma-informed practice aims at enabling clients to use their strengths, develop skills, be resilient, and have the knowledge to take control of their life.
- Cultural Consideration: trauma-informed practice centers on eliminating any cultural, racial, gender, or ethnic stereotypes or biases.
Although a client may have experienced a traumatic event, they come to you for coaching and not therapy. They may require a trained therapist to help them manage their traumatic experience as a therapist can diagnose and assess their mental health issues and even prescribe medication.
Likewise, they may benefit from a trauma-informed coach who has received training in different types of trauma, the traumatic impact of the event, symptoms, the nervous system, brain-body connection, polyvagal theory, and somatic interventions. By understanding trauma-informed practices, a coach is better equipped to address the needs of their clients. However, a coach must recognize that they can experience vicarious resilience or vicarious trauma in their indirect exposure to trauma.
The Potential Impacts of Working with Clients Who Have Experienced Trauma: Vicarious Resilience and Vicarious Trauma
Clients who have experienced a potentially stressful event or trauma are able to benefit and grow from that experience (Knight, 2019). They experience a positive outcome called vicarious resilience. They put their strengths into practice and are resilient, which are protective factors when traumatized.
Studies show that trauma survivors who work as clinicians can also express strength and resilience (Killian et al., 2017). Accordingly, many trauma survivors become therapists or coaches.
When working with someone who is resilient, a therapist or coach can experience vicarious resilience. Positive results include a greater understanding of advantages in life, a reorganization of personal objectives and priorities, an increased sense of professional competence and resourcefulness, and a greater capacity for compassion and empathy (Knight, 2019). Has that ever happened to you?
By the same token, a coach may experience vicarious trauma (VT), which is the witnessing of, or learning about, a client’s traumatic experience that produces an empathic response which can have a damaging impact on one’s health and can lead to individual, organizational, and societal burdens if changes are not made due to organizational barriers and cultural issues (Hallinan et; al., 2021).
Whether you experience vicarious trauma or vicarious resilience, here are four questions to ask yourself:
- Are the prolonged stress and constant demands of my clients making me feel burned out?
- Do I have secondary traumatic stress, where I experience the same symptoms as my client who has primary traumatic stress?
- Am I experiencing compassion fatigue and feeling exhausted from helping stressed out and traumatized clients?
- Have I been vicariously traumatized by a client’s traumatic material?
- Have I experienced vicarious resilience as a coach?
All in all, you don’t need to be a therapist to coach someone who has been traumatized. Undoubtedly, your focus as a coach is non-clinical as you focus on their present life situations and show them how to navigate their world based on their strengths, values, coping strategies, and goals.
However, if you are trauma-informed, you recognize that “any person seeking services or support might be a trauma survivor” (Goodman et. al., 2016, p. 748). Therefore, consider getting training and becoming certified to be trauma-informed.
Here are resources to consider:
- Coach Training World – Trauma-Informed Coach Training
- International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching
- Trauma-Informed Coaching Certificate
Editor’s Note: For additional information on being vicarious-trauma informed, reach out to Barbara via her website or connect with her on LinkedIn. Plus, don’t miss our feature on Barbara to learn more about her work at Griefwork Center, Inc.
American Psychological Association. (2021). Trauma.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2020, April 3). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dombo, E.I., and Sabition, C.A. (2019). Creating Trauma-Informed Schools: A Guide for School Social Workers and Educators (SSWAA Workshop Series). Oxford University Press.
Goodman, L. A., Sullivan, C. M., Serrata, J., Perilla, J., Wilson, J. M., Fauci, J. E., & DiGiovanni, C. D. (2016). Development and validation of the Trauma-Informed Practice Scales. Journal of Community Psychology, 44, 747–764.
Hallinan, S., Shiyko, M.,Volpe, R., Molnar, B.E. (2021). On the back burner: Challenges experienced by change agents addressing vicarious trauma in first response and victim service agencies. Traumatology, 27(3), 316-325.
Harris, M., & Fallot, R. (2001). Using trauma theory to design service systems: New directions for mental health services. Jossey Bass.
Knight, C. (2019). Trauma Informed Practice and Care: Implications for Field Instruction. Clinical Social Work Journal, 47, 79–89. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-018-0661-x
Moran, R.J., Asquith, N.L. (2020). Understanding the vicarious trauma and emotional labour of criminological research. Methodological Innovations, 13(2). doi:10.1177/2059799120926085
Nemeroff, C., & Binder, E. (2014). The preeminent role of childhood abuse and neglect in vulnerability to major psychiatric disorders: Toward elucidating the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 53, 395–397.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). SAMHSA’s working definition of trauma and principles and guidance for a trauma-informed approach [Draft]. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Barbara Rubel is a leading authority and award-winning author on traumatic loss, occupational burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma-informed care. As a keynote speaker, she motivates professionals to build resilience. Barbara is the author of But I Didn’t Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide (3ed). (2020).