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What Is Trauma-Informed Care?

One of the main reasons why individuals seek treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health disorders is to reduce problematic and distressing symptoms. They may enter treatment thinking that a few psychotherapy sessions or medication will quickly resolve their concerns. These resources may help individuals achieve initial sobriety. Long-lasting recovery requires an individual to heal from the underlying causes of their mental concerns. Trauma-informed care is an important part of creating lasting recovery.

Understanding Trauma

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains trauma as an experience that an individual perceives as shocking, dangerous, scary, and/or life-threatening. Trauma has both short-term and long-term impacts on an individual’s physical and emotional health.

It is important to understand that trauma is subjective. This means that whether an event or circumstance is defined as traumatic depends on how an individual uniquely experiences it. Although trauma is subjective, there are many experiences that are commonly categorized as traumatic. Some examples include:

The Consequences of Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic experiences can impact more than just the direct victims. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains that traumatic experiences do not discriminate, and often place a heavy burden not only on an individual but also on their families and communities. Some people may go through or witness trauma and proceed without long-lasting effects. Others experience the exact opposite.

How a person responds to trauma is personal. There is no right way to go about it. However, trauma, no matter how insignificant it may seem, must be appropriately processed. According to SAMHSA, “Research has shown that traumatic experiences are associated with both behavioral health and chronic physical health conditions… Substance use, mental health conditions, and other risky behaviors have been linked with traumatic experiences.” By neglecting past trauma, a person is putting their health in danger.

How Unresolved Trauma Contributes to Mental Health Disorders

Before understanding the value of trauma-informed care in treatment, it is essential to recognize how unresolved trauma can contribute to the development of mental health disorders and SUD. In general, unresolved trauma can interfere with all aspects of an individual’s well-being. More than likely, trauma has contributed to the emotional distress that a client experiences when seeking treatment.

Dysregulated Stress Response

One of the most significant ways that trauma can affect an individual’s wellness is by causing lasting dysregulation of their stress response. The fight-or-flight reaction is a natural survival instinct that helps individuals appropriately respond to stressful situations. When exposed to serious and repeated instances of trauma, this response can become dysregulated. As a result, an individual may experience long-lasting symptoms of anxiety, fear, depression, and more.

Learning to re-regulate this response is difficult, especially without the use of mental health services. Over time, a dysregulated stress response can increase an individual’s risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression, in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Self-Medication

Another way that unresolved trauma can contribute to SUD and mental health disorders is through self-medication. Distressing symptoms of unresolved trauma can be crippling. Many individuals may turn to alcohol and other drugs to reduce their trauma symptoms. However, self-medication only worsens symptoms over time. Additionally, these behaviors can quickly lead to the development of chemical dependency and addiction.

The Value of Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care approaches treatment and recovery by assuming that most—if not all—clients have experienced traumatic events throughout their life. Rather than attempting to treat a client solely by their symptoms, trauma-informed care seeks to understand what experiences have contributed to an individual’s mental health concerns. Likewise, this treatment approach helps individuals overcome unresolved trauma.

According to a book titled Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services by SAMHSA, “Trauma-informed services bring to the forefront the belief that trauma can pervasively affect an individual’s well-being, including physical and mental health.” As a result, an individual can feel more empowered to make behavioral changes. Likewise, utilizing this treatment approach can decrease the risk of relapse. It helps directly resolve the underlying causes of substance use and other types of maladaptive coping.

The Principles of Trauma-Informed Care

It’s important to make treatment guidelines that clinicians can use across the board. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and SAMHSA’s National Center for Trauma-Informed Care (NCTIC) worked together to create six principles that guide trauma-informed care approaches. These principles include:

#1. Establishing client’s safety

#2. Fostering trustworthiness & transparency

#3. Providing peer support

#4. Utilizing collaboration & mutuality

#5. Fostering empowerment & the power of choice

#6. Addressing cultural, historical, & gender issues

While these principles often guide trauma-informed care, this is not a checklist for treatment centers. Facilities offering trauma-informed treatment must provide attention, caring, awareness, safety, and sensitivity.

The Individualization of Trauma-Informed Care

For trauma-informed care to be as effective as possible, it must be individualized. Facilities that utilize this approach must offer a wide variety of treatment programs and interventions to ensure that every client will have their needs met throughout their healing journey.

Some modalities that may be offered in conjunction with trauma-informed treatment include:

Not every client will find success with each therapeutic modality. As such, clinicians should evaluate progress and make changes to the treatment plan as needed.

Trauma-informed care recognizes the role that trauma often plays in mental illnesses and substance use disorders. When trauma is left unresolved during recovery, it can increase an individual’s risk of relapse. It can also lead to the continuation of maladaptive coping techniques. At Sage Recovery, we utilize holistic and trauma-informed treatment for all of our clients. We understand that trauma is common but dangerous. With our use of trauma-informed care, you can feel safe as you work through your past experiences. In the most difficult moments, you’ll have an entire care team that you can lean on for support. To learn more about our treatment programs, call us at (512) 306-1394.