Why You Need a Trauma-Informed Therapist, Even If You Don’t Think You Have Experienced Trauma

The term trauma-informed care is a particularly important concept. A trauma-informed therapist is someone who is aware of the complex impact of trauma, as well as the ways in which trauma can impact an individual’s suffering and efforts to cope.

When following a trauma-informed approach, thorough knowledge of the impacts of trauma should be integrated into each and every aspect of treatment. Trauma-informed practice also means that any person or organisation that claims to be trauma-informed ensures that emotional and psychological safety is a priority for each client they work with.

Unfortunately, trauma-informed care, or TIC, is also becoming a buzzword. More and more people are using it casually with too little or no regard for what it actually means. If you hear someone describe himself, herself or their organisation as trauma-informed, I want you to have a good idea of what that means so you can look for signs that the quality of care holds true to that claim.

So, with that in mind, I want to pass on some tips for finding a truly trauma-informed therapist in a landscape where it has become a buzzword.

Firstly, always remember – in trauma-informed care, your safety takes top priority

Trauma-informed care recognizes the impact of experiences that threaten a person’s sense of safety and wellbeing. Trauma changes the ways in which a person regulates their thoughts and feelings, as well as their ability to care for themselves both emotionally and psychologically. TIC also recognises that a person with a history of trauma may not think of himself or herself as a trauma survivor and therefore may not even be fully aware of what it means to live with the consequences of what they experienced.

A therapist who is trauma-informed knows that the mind and body of a person with unhealed trauma is functioning in an altered way. That person may be easily triggered to feel too much emotional intensity (hyperarousal) or shut down and unable to feel much at all (hypoarousal).

A therapist who offers trauma-informed care uses all the tools and treatments they can to promote healing, while preventing further harm from hyper or hypoarousal. Any organisation or individual who offers trauma-informed care should always prioritise six key principles:

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration and mutuality
  5. Empowerment, voice and choice
  6. Cultural, historical, and gender Issues

What is trauma-informed therapy?

A trauma-informed approach seeks an awareness of the widespread impact of trauma on life experiences and relationships. It recognises trauma’s role in the outlook, emotions, and behaviour of a person with a trauma history. A trauma-informed approach also accepts that trauma’s impact is far more prevalent than most people realise.

As trauma-informed therapists, we choose to focus not only on the behaviour someone is trying to change, but also on the underlying reasons for the behaviour and the relief it currently provides.

We focus on behaviour, beliefs, and desired relief so we can undertake repair work at the deepest level to make the change long lasting. A trauma-informed approach attends to the underlying trauma from any cause.

Trauma-informed care can apply to anyone

It isn’t just for people with obvious sources of trauma such as physical or sexual abuse. Trauma-informed care also applies to people with a history of depression or anxiety that has wreaked havoc on life, or people with emotional abuse or attachment wounds.

The challenge of trauma-informed therapy lies within the process to help trauma survivors heal, even when they don’t recognise their trauma.

You may not consider your life experience to include trauma. Yet the way you have learned to cope in life may reflect the impact of trauma, even if you don’t recognise it in yourself. That is why the most effective treatment is one that follows an approach that is trauma-informed.

The reality is, a wide range of adverse events can cause trauma. Some are easier to recognise than others. The role of a trauma-informed therapist is to help you heal from adverse experiences, even when you do not identify as a trauma survivor.

Why is a trauma-informed approach necessary?

Recognising trauma’s role in a client’s experience is essential to treating and healing the toxic stress of trauma on one’s life. If left untreated, this stress can result in a wide variety of negative health outcomes.

Recognising the nature of trauma and understanding its impact is where the hope lies and recovery begins. Trauma-informed care is built on a holistic view that offers safety and compassion. It inspires hope, strength, relief, and enables people to make long-lasting change.

What happens if you don’t have a (truly) trauma-informed therapist?

Unfortunately, some clients find me after working with someone who claimed to be trauma-informed, but whose approach left clients feeling more distressed and unsafe.

When I hear a client tell me their last therapist wanted to know all the details of their trauma on the first appointment I think, “Whoa! If your ‘trauma-informed therapist’ ever asked you to do this, this approach was not trauma-informed!” Talking about the details of the trauma — without building resources to regulate your emotions first — activates the same neural pathways again. This rightly leaves you feeling unsafe in that moment, too!

I certainly don’t want to re-enact your trauma during our first meeting. The process needs to be gradual, and must first start with safety, stabilisation, and trust.

Have you been turned off by past therapy because it felt too overwhelming?

When therapists move too fast, it can cause damage to both the healing process and the client. Until both the therapist and client understand the underlying issues and build resources and safety, talking about one’s experience can lead clients further down the path towards harmful behaviour, depression, anxiety or even shame.

A safe, compassionate environment is the hallmark of trauma-informed therapy. This then offers a method to make your experience understandable and manageable to allow for hope, healing and long-lasting change. If you have had a negative therapeutic experience in the past, I encourage you to try again with a trauma-informed therapist who has the knowledge and training to clearly explain what it means to you.

Seeking a trauma-informed therapist? Here’s what to look for

Unfortunately, there’s no official database of “trauma-informed therapists”, but I’d like to share some tips of what to look for when seeking a trauma informed therapist. Pay attention to how a therapist describes themselves on their website and listen to how they talk to you on the phone.

When a therapist operates with an authentic trauma-informed approach:

  • They will talk about safety from the beginning: physical safety, emotional safety, and creating a safe environment where healing can occur.
  • They will talk about self-care, boundaries, grounding and resourcing.
  • Their approach recognises that your behaviour isn’t who you are, but rather that it makes sense based on your history. It is what happened to you, not who you are!
  • They work to understand your coping skills, how you survived your experiences, and help you to build new healthy coping skills.
  • They move at a pace you’re comfortable with, collaborating with you along the way, and work to keep you within your window of tolerance of emotions.

In addition, pay attention to how you feel in the initial meetings with a new therapist. You should feel respected and comfortable. You should feel that you are being allowed to slowly build a relationship and a sense of safety in the therapy room before ever sharing deeper information about your trauma history. My hope for you is that you will also feel compassion, warmth and kindness.

Most importantly, if any therapist asks you for the nitty-gritty details of your trauma the first day you meet them, RUN in the other direction!

You deserve the best care

If you’ve found yourself on a therapeutic journey or you are hoping to help a loved one through a difficult time, I can’t stress enough the importance of working with a trauma-informed therapist.

I know it may be hard to think that you deserve the best, but if you can take only one thing from this article, it’s that you DESERVE a therapist who can help you heal by respecting you and working together with you, compassionately, to help you heal and move forward.

If you’d like to explore how trauma-informed approach works, I am here to help. Please feel free to get in touch with me today to start your journey towards healing.

Until next time,

Ilona Zaleska