By Mark Walsh
This article is useful reading for any trainer or coach as it describes some of the signs and symptoms of trauma, and the effects it can have on learning. Trauma is incredibly common. For example, statistics show an 80% lifetime prevalence in the UK, and that one in four women and one in six men has been sexually abused in the USA. Trauma symptoms, if not recognized, are potentially undermining to any learning situation, so are well worth knowing about.
A little personal background
As well as being a business trainer and coach, I am a trauma educator. I’ve trained therapists, humanitarian aid workers and business people in the bodily aspects, or trauma and psychological resilience, generally. I have worked everywhere from with the military in Sierra Leone to The House of Lords, The Metropolitan Police and in a number of war zones. Strangely though, I have seen little offered to life coaches and facilitators on the subject, so I thought I'd write this. I have also been through a personal trauma journey from PTSD to recovery.
‘Trauma’ is a wide now banded around for almost anything, so I want to be clear I refer to the clinical use as an experience of overwhelm involving threat to life or the integrity of self. Sadly, abuse, rapes, car accidents, assaults, etc., are part of many people’s life experience, and while many people recover from the acute psychological symptoms, a proportion develop longer term symptoms. These are sometimes grouped as disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here are some of the more common groupings of symptoms that can be trauma-related generally, and how they relate to facilitation:
Being stuck in fight or flight mode is a core trauma symptom which expresses in different ways, including anxiety (loss of a sense of safety is key to much trauma), anger and irritability, concentration issues, difficulty listening, hyper-vigilance (being always on the lookout), emotional sensitivity and sleeplessness. For a trainee with such issues, sitting still to learn may be difficult, as may mindfulness or being asked to access emotions (though these can be healing, if done right). They may seem overly fearful to participate due to perceived emotional threat. A lack of ability in regulating emotions is a common trauma symptom and this can show up in any learning process easily, especially when there is insufficient trust (eg, when HR have forced them to be in a training or their manager is there). Traumatised participants could also be “difficult”, aggressive or confrontational. That awkward delegate you always seem to get could have had a traumatic background.
Physical and emotional numbing
Trauma can make people numb, as this is a way to cope with overwhelming physical or emotional pain. This can lead to all sorts of health issues, and also, emotional issues which can show up in training. A lack of empathy or insensitivity to other’s emotions may be trauma related. Critically, trauma often damages attachment, boundaries trust and relationships, generally. Trauma is toxic to intimacy and relationships, including learning relationships, such as the coaching one. Think of trainees who can’t say no, always want to please you, don’t trust the trainer, want to get too close immediately, can’t let go of a group after a session ends, or who don’t respect other boundaries in exercises. Such issues may be trauma related.
If a person has been traumatised by something, they likely want to avoid it. This can also be situations they read as similar, for example, linking bomb explosions to any bangs, or a rapist to all people of the same ethnicity. In a training, if someone has a very strong reaction to not doing something that is hard to understand, this may be avoidance and it is best to respect it. Paradoxically, people can also develop ‘repetition compulsion’, where in an unconscious attempt to heal, they re-expose themselves to something similar to that which traumatised them. If you do ‘extreme’ and intense personal development, like fire walking, etc., you may well encounter such people.
Intrusive symptoms include someone constantly thinking about a traumatic event against their will, which can be very distracting to learning, or less commonly, the famous dissociative ‘flashbacks’, when a person is unaware of the present and thinks they are back in the traumatic situation. Traumatic memories are different from regular ones and are very ‘alive’ in a person, even when deliberately remembered. Intrusive symptoms can be triggered by seemingly innocuous stimuli, for example, the smell of someone’s cigarette reminding a survivor of a house fire.
What a trainer or coach can do?
What is damaged in trauma is the ability to easily meet core emotional/relational needs. Building trust, belonging and safety are part of any good facilitator’s skills and this is the key to working with people with trauma backgrounds. This may be something as simple as introducing a new delegate who arrives late, or asking how people are and what they need to be able learn in their own way, for example. Some other specifics might include:
– Being aware of, on the look-out for, and compassionate towards trauma symptoms.
– Know competent therapists and refer when in doubt. People often come to coaching as it is less stigmatised than therapy when they have trauma, but if someone presents to you with serious untreated trauma and you are not a trauma therapist refer them to a trauma treatment professional!
– Trainings that are both active but that also teach some kind of self-regulatory technique like centring can be easier for people with hyper-arousal symptoms.
– Be careful with touch, boundaries and consent. I see a lot of trainers doing techniques or touching people without explicit permission. Don’t! And if in doubt, a maybe is a no.
– Many coaches and trainers get into the work after difficult circumstances, however it is essential a facilitator works on their own trauma if they have it, so as not to damage others acting out unhealthy patterns.
– Be careful of potential triggers and respect avoidance.
– Know that long term trauma can heal (most acute trauma symptoms heals on its own actually) and can even lead to growth.
Effective treatment methods
While you shouldn’t attempt to apply them, as an untrained non-specialist, it is good to know that effective trauma treatments exist. Personally, I see trauma as physical, social, psychological and spiritual, so healing best includes all elements. Effective treatments are listed below.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (UK NICE guideline approved)
- EMDR – an eye movement technique (UK NICE guideline approved)
- Trauma Releasing Exercises http://traumaprevention.com/
- Emotional Freedom Technique (controversial, but I know experts who swear by it)
- Somatic Experiencing, Hakomi, and other bodily approaches
- Self-help books such as this one: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Keys-Safe- Trauma-Recovery-Take- charge/dp/0393706052
Trauma exists, it’s common and it’s effecting your training/coaching already. I hope this little bit of information has helped.
Trauma resilience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hee5eIYC8rw
The body and peace: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfci3IkFJRc
Sign and symptoms of PTSD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tie1YHvx-mo
PTSD trauma and relationships: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag3pcIaD5n4
PTSD and sexual abuse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSgX56pth_U
Trauma and culture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMsBdphpBq0
PTSD and humanitarian aid workers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXcG_fMh2BM
NB: An earlier version of this article was published in The Embodiment Journal