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My objective as a thanatologist and keynote speaker is to share knowledge and helpful advice about becoming trauma-informed and vicariously trauma-informed. Let’s examine trauma, which is defined as a life event that a client perceives as disturbing or painful to the degree that it impairs their capacity to function [1].

What is Trauma?

SAMHSA‘s Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative states that “Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that are experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that have lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being”[2].

In contrast, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) [3], trauma is an emotional response to a horrific incident that encompasses immediate responses (such shock and denial) and longer-term responses (e.g., nausea, flashbacks, strained relationships, and headaches).

Exposure to trauma can result in neurobiological changes that impair the brain’s ability to process trauma and disturb the body’s mechanisms for responding to stress [4].

Maybe this explains why certain coaching sessions are so challenging.

Trauma Sources: Traumatic Events, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and Ongoing Trauma

If you’re a coach, you might be asked to help someone who has experienced a traumatic event.

Maybe their ACEs score is high. Adverse experiences during childhood concentrate on traumatic events that happened in childhood, such as abuse, violence, a family member committing suicide, substance addiction happening in the household, a parent who has a mental illness or one who is in prison, or the loss of a parent [5].
suffering from a traumatic event
Or, the client might have suffered a recent traumatic event or chronic trauma throughout their life.

Regardless of the trauma’s origin, when you address the significance of the experience, the discussion will probably turn to the impact the effects of trauma has had on them. You might notice that their traumatic experience has an effect on the difficulties they are currently dealing with (s). When you listen to their story, it becomes clear that personal trauma has altered their perceptions of the world, other people, and themselves.

If you are not aware of trauma-informed methods when coaching, you run the risk of retraumatizing the client. Let’s examine what it means to be trauma-informed in light of this.

Trauma-Informed Care

Harris and Fallot first used the term “trauma-informed” in 2001 to refer to behavioral, social, and mental health programs that address the possibility that someone may have experienced trauma in their past [6].

Using trauma-informed coaching methods as a guide for interacting with clients

New research has identified six guiding principles for trauma-informed care: safety, trust, collaboration, choice, cultural sensitivity, and empowerment.

trauma-informed coachingTrauma-informed coaches make sure that a client feels safe while working with them both physically and emotionally and mentally.

  1. Safety: trauma-informed practice makes sure that a client feels safe while working with you both physically and emotionally and psychologically.
  2. Trustworthiness: Trauma-informed approach emphasizes transparency (e.g., the person is informed of goals and boundaries), which fosters their self-confidence and the ability to manage their emotions.
  3. Peer Support: Trauma-informed practice acknowledges that individuals experiencing trauma are not alone and can turn to peers (also known as “trauma survivors”) for support.
  4. Collaboration: trauma-informed practice is focused on treating clients like partners who can collaborate with a professional to accomplish a goal and make decisions together.
  5. Empowerment: Trauma-informed practice works to give clients the skills they need to leverage their strengths, become resilient, and take charge of their lives.
  6. Cultural Consideration: Trauma-informed practice focuses on eradicating any prejudices or biases related to race, gender, ethnicity, or culture.

Even if a client has gone through a traumatic experience, they are coming to you for coaching instead of therapy. They might need the help of a professional therapist to manage their trauma history because a therapist can identify and evaluate their mental health problems and prescribe medication if needed.

A coach must be aware that their indirect exposure to trauma might result in vicarious resilience or vicarious trauma.

A trauma-informed coach who has been trained in the various types of traumata, the impact a traumatic event can have, symptoms, the connection between brain and body, the nervous system, polyvagal theory, and somatic therapies may also be beneficial. A coach is better able to meet the needs of their clients if they understand trauma-informed methods. A coach must be aware that because of their indirect exposure to trauma, they may also suffer vicarious trauma or vicarious resilience.

Vicarious Trauma and Vicarious Resilience: The Potential Results of Working with Those Who Have Experienced Trauma

Individuals who have gone through a potentially traumatic or stressful incident can benefit from it and grow as a result [7]. A positive result can be experiencing an outcome called vicarious resilience. They become resilient and begin to use their strengths, which can help protect them when traumatized.

According to some studies, trauma survivors can demonstrate resilience and strength when working as clinicians. As a result, many survivors of trauma become coaches or therapists.

A therapist or coach may experience vicarious resilience when working with a resilient client. Positive outcomes include a better grasp of life’s advantages, a rearrangement of one’s goals and priorities, a greater sense of resourcefulness and competence professionally, and an expanded capacity for empathy and compassion. 6 Have you ever experienced that?

When a coach is a witness to or hears about the traumatic experience of a client, they could experience an empathetic response known as vicarious trauma (VT), which can be damaging to one’s health and be a burden to individuals, organizations, and society if changes aren’t made because of cultural issues and organizational barriers [8].

Vicarious trauma can happen when one has a prolonged and profound exposure to trauma material that takes emotional effort to deal with the distressing and painful impact. [9]

If you think you have experienced either vicarious resilience or vicarious trauma, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Am I feeling burned out from the protracted stress and ongoing demands from my clients?
  2. Do I suffer from secondary traumatic stress, where I’m having the same symptoms as my client with primary traumatic stress?
  3. Has my working with clients who are traumatized and stressed out led to me feeling exhausted and experiencing compassion fatigue?
  4. Have I experienced trauma vicariously because of a client’s painful trauma?
  5. As a coach, have I experienced vicarious resilience?

Overall, coaching someone who has experienced trauma doesn’t require you to be a therapist. Without a question, your purpose as a coach is to help people navigate their current challenges in life using their strengths, values, coping skills, and aspirations as a guide.

If you are trauma-informed, you understand that “any person seeking services or support might be a trauma survivor” [10]. As a result, give some thought to being trained and becoming certified so that you will be trauma-informed.

Resources for your consideration:

[1] Dombo, E.I., and Sabatino, C.A. (2019). Creating Trauma-Informed Schools: A Guide for School Social Workers and Educators (SSWAA Workshop Series). Oxford University Press.

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). SAMHSA’s working definition of trauma and principles and guidance for a trauma-informed approach [Draft]. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

[3] American Psychological Association. (2021). Trauma.

[4] Nemeroff, C., & Binder, E. (2014). The preeminent role of childhood abuse and neglect in vulnerability to major psychiatric disorders: Toward elucidating the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 53, 395–397.

[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2020, April 3). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[6] Harris, M., & Fallot, R. (2001). Using trauma theory to design service systems: New directions for mental health services. Jossey Bass.

[7] Knight, C. (2019). Trauma Informed Practice and Care: Implications for Field Instruction. Clinical Social Work Journal, 47, 79–89.

[8] Hallinan, S., Shiyko, M.,Volpe, R., Molnar, B.E. (2021). On the back burner: Challenges experienced by change agents addressing vicarious trauma in first response and victim service agencies. Traumatology, 27(3), 316-325.

[9] Moran, R.J., Asquith, N.L. (2020). Understanding the vicarious trauma and emotional labour of criminological research. Methodological Innovations, 13(2). doi:10.1177/2059799120926085

[10] Goodman, L. A., Sullivan, C. M., Serrata, J., Perilla, J., Wilson, J. M., Fauci, J. E., & DiGiovanni, C. D. (2016). Development and validation of the Trauma-Informed Practice Scales. Journal of Community Psychology, 44, 747–764.