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Are Your Clients More Change Resistant Than You’d Like? Why Being Trauma-Sensitive Can Help

Last updated on February 20, 2024

Lori was a middle-aged executive who had had enough of the corporate grind and finally decided to leave what felt like her ivory tower prison to start her own consulting firm. 

She was enthusiastic and eager to make her business successful, offering her more freedom and purpose than she had known in years. After working with coaches in her corporate life, Lori knew the value of having an outside perspective and accountability touch points as important components of success.

However, she greatly underestimated the inner forces that would derail her progress in this new landscape she was traversing. 

She found us when several business development strategies she learned didn’t get traction, and her vision of living a freedom-based business lifestyle began fading like a desert mirage. 

Lori had been a very successful executive, with a large team of people working under her. She succeeded easily and admirably in her executive role, so she was incredibly disheartened to discover that launching her own business felt so difficult and, at times, disorienting. 

One of the key challenges we identified was that being an executive leader allowed Lori to lean into her task-oriented delivery strengths while drawing a large, safe paycheck, whereas being the CEO of her own firm demanded she not only deliver on the services she provides but more importantly make the sales to pay herself, her team, and her business. 

One of the first things we do with clients like Lori is to not only clarify goals and intentions but also bring to light what has derailed them in the past. 

This didn’t take too long in Lori’s case because when we assigned her the very first task of picking up the phone to call potential clients, she disappeared. We hadn’t heard from her in several days, and when Lori resurfaced, she told us about a family emergency that had been occupying all of her attention. Ok, that sounds reasonable, right? Let’s try again.

This pattern continued for Lori, in that any first step in reaching out to prospective clients caused a family emergency, a car breakdown, a headache, the flu, a fight with her spouse, or any other manner of what sounded like a perfectly reasonable distraction. 

The deeper truth is that this was a lifelong pattern of “hiding” that, once she became aware of, was followed by a debilitating sense of shame born from traumatic early life experiences.

What is Considered Traumatic?

There is a fairly heated current debate on what exactly constitutes trauma. Once kept hidden and something to be ashamed of, there has been a recent and somewhat dramatic shift to bringing trauma awareness center stage in popular culture.  

The concept of trauma, as outlined by experts at SAMHSA, encompasses any single event, a sequence of events, or situations perceived by a person as physically or emotionally damaging or threatening. 

Such experiences can have enduring negative impacts on a person’s overall functioning, including their mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual health.

Woman Bent Down Stress

In our experience, Lori’s story is not unique, and what is happening with her is fast becoming the norm and not the exception when it comes to helping even highly functioning clients.

Research estimates that nearly 90% of people have experienced at least one significantly traumatic event in their lives, and it’s worth noting that this research occurred before the COVID pandemic, making it reasonable to think that these numbers could be even higher. 

Post-traumatic symptoms occur on a spectrum, with up to 20% of people going on to develop PTSD (Sidran Institute, 2023) after experiencing a traumatic event.

 Many more people, however, will unknowingly experience sub-clinical post-traumatic symptoms throughout their lives that profoundly impact their health, careers, finances, and relationships. 

These people are everywhere; they are teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, cab drivers, executives, and police officers. 

In short, they are you and me. 

These insidious post-traumatic symptoms may lie hidden for years, and in many cases, people will construct their lives in order to keep those very symptoms at bay, just like Lori did, hiding behind her corporate executive desk. 

Researchers and clinicians have found it useful to sort traumatic experiences into at least two basic categories: type 1 and type 2 trauma. 

Type 1 can be thought of as a traumatic experience that is more likely to occur in adulthood within a very short time interval, like a car accident, natural disaster, or workplace violence. 

Type 2 trauma is graded as more complex, occurring during childhood over longer periods of time, such as growing up with an abusive caregiver or in an unpredictable, unsafe environment. 

The research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) is clear and profound; the higher the number of adverse events a child experiences is directly linked to statistically higher rates of adult chronic health conditions, adult psychiatric disorders, and at-risk behaviors.

What is Trauma’s Impact on Us?

Lori was avoiding the exact things that she needed to do in her business to make it successful. Sure, she could sit in her office, fill out paperwork, and lead meetings all day; however, the moment she tried to pick up the phone for a sales call, she felt nauseous, dizzy, and disoriented, resulting in her being distracted by whatever apparent emergency popped up. 

While Lori wondered if her symptoms were related to diet, electrolytes, or the flu, to us it made perfect sense; the mere thought of answering the phone and asking someone to value her enough to hire her caused her nervous system to become dysregulated.  

Lori’s early life, by definition, was traumatic; growing up in a lower middle class household, parents divorced, and physical and emotional punishment being a key part of her parent’s behavior management strategy. 

Lori, like many people, normalized the experience because many of her friends growing up had the same things happening in their homes and lives; she didn’t realize the impact that her earlier life experiences would have on her present-day nervous system.

Our complex nervous systems are designed with a primary goal: to maintain homeostasis. An important branch of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system branches into every body system and influences the vast majority of our subconscious activities like digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, postural muscle tone, alertness, and orientation. 

When we experience a traumatic event, our autonomic nervous system rapidly changes its function in order to help us survive through first mobilizing and then shutting down.  

According to Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory, when mammals (including humans) are threatened, they first signal for support using social engagement cues like changes in voice tone and facial expressions. If the social engagement strategies don’t create safety, then the sympathetic nervous system activates fight and-flight responses. 

If, in turn, fight or flight isn’t effective, then the nervous system makes a last-ditch survival effort by shutting down, the same way a possum will play dead. 

To protect herself, Lori’s nervous system learned how to run away from traumatic situations, and if she couldn’t get away, her nervous system would shut down. Lori’s nervous system learned that being “seen” was dangerous, so it activated old defense patterns to stay safe.

Being Trauma-Sensitive

Being trauma-sensitive falls into a hierarchy of levels of trauma practice between being trauma-informed and trauma-specific. 

To understand how to use trauma-sensitive strategies as a coach effectively, it’s imperative to also have knowledge of trauma-informed practice.

The basic 4R’s framework of being trauma-sensitive includes; 

  • Realizing the widespread impact of trauma
  • Recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • Respond by integrating trauma knowledge into practice 
  • Reduce re-traumatization

Yes, trauma is widespread, and most people don’t realize that their most persistent change resistance issues are related to past trauma. 

From a coaching perspective, one of the things that makes our work so interesting and rewarding is learning to help our clients navigate their own resistance to creating the results they really want. In our experience, the majority of change resistance issues are rooted in the signs and symptoms of nervous system dysregulation.

When a person experiences trauma, their nervous system adapts to help them survive and, in doing so, can both create a new “set point” for the autonomic nervous system and develop a pattern of using that same survival strategy again in the future. 

Lori’s initial defense strategy to being “seen” was for her sympathetic nervous system to cause hyperarousal, resulting in dizziness, nausea, and disorganized thinking. 

When seeking advice from colleagues and past coaches who tended towards trying to prop her up and suggest she just push through, the result was a progression from nausea and dizziness to shut down, where she would become confused, disoriented, and lethargic. 

When looking from a behavioral perspective this might be alarming, however when viewing this through a trauma-sensitive coaching lens it all makes sense. When Lori’s primary flight, change-resistant strategy didn’t protect her, her nervous system shut down as a last resort.

In line with the primary trauma responses, we typically see change resistance present itself in one of four ways: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. While most of us have a favorite response, these can sometimes be combined as a person’s nervous system attempts to adapt to the situation.  

A fight response looks like when a client’s primary resistance strategy includes arguing, projecting, and denying. A flight response is typically seen as distraction, avoidance, and anxiety. A freeze response is hallmarked by lethargy, confusion, and mental shutdown. A fawn response is noted as people pleasing and sacrificing one’s own needs for someone else’s. 

When these responses are present, trying to coach intellectually tends to be difficult and ineffective simply because the client’s nervous system is outside of its “window of tolerance.” 

The window of tolerance (WOT) concept originated by Dr. Dan Siegel, MD describes the zone of optimal nervous system arousal between hyper-aroused and hypo-aroused nervous system states. Within the WOT is where a person has the greatest access to their cognitive faculties, problem-solving, and communication skills.

A primary way we respond as trauma-sensitive coaches is to help our clients get back into their window of tolerance before trying to work intellectually or on goal-oriented objectives simply because planning and taking action is much easier and more effective when a client’s nervous system is balanced.  

Trauma-informed Coach Comforting a Client

When working with Lori’s nervous system, rather than trying to convince her to pick up the phone, we took a step back and checked in with what she was experiencing in her body. 

We helped Lori become aware of the subtle signs of her nervous system dysregulation and decoded what the primary activators were so that she could address them before she felt completely derailed. 

Next, we taught Lori how to modify her inner sensory experience so that she could build resilience and return her nervous system to the WOT on her own. 

Finally, as she gained mastery over shifting her nervous system into a balanced state, Lori could reframe the action of doing sales calls from a grounded, present, and confident inner place that naturally extended outward into highly effective conversations, resulting in regularly closing lucrative corporate contracts. 

Lori’s nervous system wasn’t broken, and her avoidance strategies did not need to be fixed, as from a trauma-sensitive lens, her subconscious defense and protection responses were working perfectly. 

Many coaches we meet tell us that they have no desire to work with people who have experienced trauma, and yet if they are working with people, they already are. People hire coaches to help them change something important, something life-altering, and if that endeavor is transformational, then resistance to that very change will undoubtedly come up. 

Resistance to change is always rooted in the way our nervous system has adapted to our past experiences, and if those past experiences included self-protection from physical or emotional harm, then our resistance to change is rooted in trauma. 

We believe that psychotherapy is immensely valuable in helping people heal from trauma; however, in Lori’s case, she wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD and didn’t necessarily need therapy to meet her goal; she just needed great trauma-sensitive coaching.

If you would like more information, here are some helpful resources to consider:

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Brian Trzaskos - Coach
Brian Trzaskos

Brian Trzaskos, PT, LMT, CSCS, CMP, MI-C, is a co-creator of Sensation-Based Motivation Coaching, a somatic, trauma-sensitive methodology. He is currently the President of NEW Health Inc., director of education at the Somatic Coaching Academy, and earned his degree in Physical Therapy and Trauma Informed Organizations certificate from SUNY Buffalo.

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