Safety. It's something that many of us take for granted. But for many of the clients Intermountain works with, and especially the trauma-affected children that come to us in our residential program, safety is certainly not a "given."
While it may seem odd to those who have not experienced childhood trauma or adversity, an individual who felt unsafe as an infant or child can have a disruption in their relational, physical, and emotional development that inhibits their brain's ability to accurately interpret their world. Stress hormones can flood their brain and send them into a state of re-traumatization (sometimes referred to as "being triggered," but it's more like a switch has been flipped or the floodgates on an emotional dam have been released!) that makes it impossible for them to engage in higher level thinking tasks while in that heightened emotional state. Everything in their brain is telling them they should rightly fear for their life and either run, fight, or shut down ("play possum") in order to survive that moment.
What might set off a state of re-traumatization differs from individual to individual based on their experience. The response that care givers, friends, family members, and hopefully faith communities can react with is to establish felt safety. This can be hard to learn, as those who are re-traumatized in the moment and are feeling unsafe often express it in unsafe ways! This, in turn, can cause those of us caring for these individuals to feel unsafe and have our own fight-flight-freeze response. Only by being consciously aware of our responses, taking a moment to regulate ourselves, can we then provide a response that will communicate safety and calm to the re-traumatized individual we are seeking to help.
When seeking to establish or re-establish felt safety it is important to remember a few things:
1. "Felt" safety is just that... Ask, "What is going to FEEL safe to the individual?" This is not the time to argue or convince... remember the individual is not in command of their executive functioning or reasoning skills anyway! Telling someone, "You are safe... no one is trying to hurt you!" is not as powerful as checking your posture, your tone of voice, and the setting to see what can be done to communicate safety.
2. Understand that when someone is traumatized or triggered, their responses will be more “all or nothing”; extreme; black or white; friend or foe. They may not even be seeing you as the "safe person" you are, but rather might be seeing you as their abuser. Do not take offense! This moment will pass.
3. Give simple, direct instructions... one at a time. Your anxiety in the situation may lead you to want to give more than one instruction at a time or pile on words (that's what I tend to do!). So, an example would be: "I can see something has upset you... please take a deep breath with me." Repeat that as many times as needed to get them to slow down and take a deep breath. Taking deep breaths is a scientifically proven way to help move someone from the flight-flight-freeze response to a more regulated position from which they can be calmed and reasoned with. After you get them to take a breath, then you can continue with other simple, direct instructions related to safety.
I have found that having to step in for a child to help them regulate from a re-traumatizing experience is almost always embarrassing for them, bringing up a sense of shame or brokenness. As ML Rutherford suggests in the video above, ultimately that child or individual you are working with will thank you for demanding that they be safe and that you ensure a safe environment be present for them, as well. This might involve certain structures in place or circumstances that apply to them that don't apply to other children. If these requirements always relate back to safety (especially that FELT safety, remember!) and don't appear arbitrary or punishing, these limits communicate the LOVE we want to express to those who are trauma-affected.
Ultimately, as ML says, these children (and older individuals!) will thank you for your care and understanding of their needs. And, if we can teach them self-awareness about how they can establish safe boundaries for themselves and the ways they get "triggered" and can either prevent or move through those events, we will have brought a greater sense of healing and wholeness to them that gives them a sense of dignity and ownership of their emotional world.
Final note: After writing this post, I spent the better part of my Friday in the ER with someone very close to me... had I not remembered these principles above, the situation could have gone from bad to worse very quickly. Those of you reading this that are working with trauma-affected people, especially close family members, I know something of what you are going through! Hang in there! God's grace is strongest in our areas of greatest need. Don't give up on yourself and thank you for being there for those that need you because you understand their trauma. Blessings, Chris.
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