What Does “Trauma-Informed” Mean?

Definitions for “trauma-informed” mental health services abound, leading to some confusion about what the term actually means. In this month’s article, let’s try to demystify this geeky-sounding word a little bit!

“Trauma” originates from the ancient greek word, meaning “wound”, and it was adopted into medical terminology during scientific advances made at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. Today, it often refers to a range of mental health therapy approaches that are based on our understanding of the human stress response in extremely fearful or hopeless situations. Pioneering psychologists and neuroscientists have greatly increased our understanding of how humans react in very frightening circumstances. In fact, the surge of knowledge related to mental health trauma has had a remarkable influence on how counselors do their work today, to the extent that many will routinely ask new clients about their trauma history. Being “trauma-informed” then, means possessing an understanding of science behind trauma exposure, and understanding the implications of trauma exposure in psychological wellness.

When I refer to “trauma-informed” practice, I am talking about what science currently has to say about the stress response, and how we can apply that knowledge to making the the quality of life better for persons that have been exposed to traumatic stress. The first step towards applying this knowledge is to share it with my clients, and that is why the initial part of trauma-informed therapy usually involves some basic explanation, or “psycho-education”, to use a technical term. This essentially means helping clients to understand the fundamentals of brain physiology, and how our neurological system engages in stereotypical responses to stress.

But this is not simply learning for knowledge sake. Because each person’s experience is very unique, these discussions will usually be structured to provide clients with insights into how their particular past experiences are affecting them, with an aim towards dissolving any stigma or myths surrounding the symptoms they may be experiencing. Thus, my definition of trauma-informed therapeutic practices begins with trauma-informed clients. Knowledge can be empowering, and the more trauma-informed my clients are, the better equipped they will be to reclaim and take charge of living healthy lives. Trauma-informed practices have come a long way in the past 20 years, and are fairly mainstream today, which is one reason why I choose to specialize in treating trauma.

​Randy R. Ashford, MS, LMHC

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