The Trauma Response

Posted December 13, 2019

By Kelly Coffman, Ukeru Learning Engineer

The Ukeru team often talks about the trauma response; for individuals who have experienced traumatic events – whether big T (such as sexual or physical abuse, severe neglect, loss or domestic violence) or little t trauma (such as bullying, shame, fear and anxiety, among others) – the impact of re-experiencing that trauma can be debilitating. Recently, while conducting a training in Albuquerque, I saw someone experiencing a trauma response in real time. It’s an eye-opening situation and it reminded me that you never know what someone is going through. That’s why compassion is so important.

During the training, another Ukeru team member noticed a young woman – let’s call her Jenny* – in distress. Every time someone hit one of the pads, Jenny would flinch. I gently asked if I could speak with her. As we walked out of the room, she broke down crying, slid to the floor and hid her face, unable to look at me. She was in complete melt-down mode. Bear in mind, Jenny is an employee of the organization participating in the training, not a client.

I let her know she was safe and asked her if she had experienced some type of trauma in the past. Because she could not verbally answer me, I told her she could shake her head yes or no. She shook her head indicating yes.

A common mistake made when working with individuals in crisis is saying things like, “Talk to me. Tell me what happened.” In fact, I have made that mistake myself. When I started out in direct care over 20 years ago, I never realized that telling the kids I worked with to “use their words,” was asking them to do something they just could not possibly do in that moment. I was not taking their trauma into account.

The fact is, when the trauma response is triggered, a person is incapable of communicating verbally. That’s why I asked Jenny a question that she could respond to with a shake of her head. I didn’t ask her to say more than that; I just stayed with her and tried to comfort her.

Needless to say, Jenny was excused from the training and a trusted colleague escorted her back to her office. When I inquired about her the next day, I was told that she was still experiencing the effects of her past traumatic event.

I am not recounting this story to scare anyone out of participating in an Ukeru training; quite the opposite! I am sharing it because it is a powerful reminder that a trauma-informed approach is intended to support not only clients, but also those who care for them. It’s really for any human being! If you are a human, you’ve experienced trauma of some sort. All of us would benefit from compassion if our trauma response is triggered.

When we are preparing to conduct a training, the Ukeru team always encourages people to inform us if they’ve experienced a traumatic event. If they have, we can work with them so that they are not triggered. A lot of people, for example, may opt out of participating in a specific physical drill if it is likely to bring up past trauma.

We often talk about universal precautions – always assuming that, because trauma is so pervasive, everyone we are working with has experienced. That knowledge kicked in for me during Jenny’s crisis. I knew the best thing I could do for her was to assure her that she was safe and provide her with a comforting environment.

I will never forget Jenny. In my mind, I can still see her, sitting on the floor, covering her eyes. There is always a reason for someone’s behavior. You never know what someone is going through. Treating someone with compassion when they are in crisis is always the best approach.