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5 Principles of Trauma-Informed Care

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By Stephanie Prunoske


Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that anyone can experience. It can be short lived or long-lasting. It can change a person’s brain functions, disrupts organ systems, and increase stress-related diseases. It can impair a person’s memory, concentration, and focus. Trauma keeps a person in a continuous state of fight or flight response mode. It causes an inability to distinguish between what is safe and unsafe in a person’s world.   And it affects a person’s ability to trust, cope, and form healthy relationships with others.

Trauma-informed care is a philosophy of care that involves a thorough understanding of the physical, psychological, and social effects of trauma and a the role trauma has played in peoples’ lives. It considers a more compassionate approach, and changes the conversation from “what is wrong with a person”, to, “what happened to a person?”.  Trauma informed care strives to recognize the centrality of trauma, avoid re-traumatizing, and focuses on five principles within a person’s life including:

  1.  A person is SAFE.
  2.  A person can TRUST the people and circumstances around them.
  3.  The person has CHOICE in their life or situation.
  4. The person is in relationship with those around them and is able to COLLABORATE to achieve success.
  5.  A person is EMPOWERED and recognized for their strengths and value.

Trauma-informed care is vitally important in the human services field. Research has shown that direct support professionals (DSPs) have a higher rate of trauma; 75% have experienced at least one traumatic event, compared with 64% of the general population.  For individuals with intellectual disabilities, the rate of abuse and neglect is 2.5 -10 times higher than someone without a disability.

DSPs experience increased stress due to working with individuals who have experienced their own trauma.  DSPs may also be asked to do more on a shift with fewer resources.  They may have occasional threats to their own physical or emotional safety from behavior or medical challenges in those they support.  Often, behavior challenges in someone they are supporting are not recognized as underlying trauma.

Self-care and resiliency in the life of a DSP can equip them with the tools they need to keep stress at a low level.  Protective factors to trauma include secure attachments and social supports like family, friends, and coworkers. Focusing on their strengths instead of weaknesses, increasing empowerment and choice in their life, and having coping skills and hobbies can help as well.

DSPs must care for themselves first if they want to be the best for those around them.  Doing so will allow them to interact with the people they support in a compassionate, understanding, and meaningful way.    When you make a commitment towards becoming trauma-informed, you are making a commitment towards a new way of thinking. Seeing people through a new lens will allow us to be more thoughtful about our actions, our words, and our ability to provide services.