#WeRideTogether acknowledges and validates the range of traumatic responses survivors can have to the horrible experience of sexual misconduct in sport. In efforts to provide language, education, and tools to survivors, their loved ones, and athletic communities, #WeRideTogether shares best practice resources on how to respond to traumas.
What is trauma?
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event.” Short-term responses to trauma can include shock and denial, while “longer term reactions may be exhibited as unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.” In the domain of sports, harassment, sexualized language, physical touching, and emotional manipulation can be traumas and evoke a trauma response. Every experience and every reaction is unique. Informing oneself about trauma can help survivors, family, friends, and athletic communities respond in a sensitive and understanding manner that reduces future harm and supports the individual recovery process.
What is a trauma-informed response?
Survivors respond to trauma. So do families, friends, communities, providers, and the media. Through experiencing and disclosing the inappropriate event(s), survivors may or may not recognize their experience as traumatizing, and may or may not identify with potential emotional, mental, and physical changes that can occur. This personal reaction comes from the fact that we each respond to events differently. What individuals code as trauma in their minds and bodies can vary in expression over time and in intensity. Therefore, it is especially important that those responding to survivors are informed about trauma. This education equips responders to react in manners that are respectful, compassionate, empowering, and safety focused. Trauma-informed responses reduce invoking more harm, minimize assumption making, decrease dismissiveness or brashness, and lessen toxic positivity. Rather, trauma-informed responses focus on listening, offering hope and connection, and meeting the survivor where they are at. With the intent of wanting to best support survivors, knowledge and tools can support families, friends, community members, and providers to navigate these sad, horrific, and difficult situations.
The essentials of a trauma-informed response:
A trauma-informed response is respectful. This means that whomever the responder is, they respond to the survivor demonstrating verbal and physical respect. Verbal respect means keeping confidentiality (unless a mandated reporter), not making false promises on the recovery process or any outcomes, listening more than speaking, and allowing all feelings from the survivor to be expressed as there is not a right or wrong way to feel. Physical respect means asking before touching the survivor (to hug or place a hand upon them, examine them, etc.); being mindful of your body language and demeanor to be loving, calm, and open; and keeping routine, structure, and formality which supports senses of safety. In order to do this, one must have awareness and knowledge about trauma and separate any of their own opinions, feelings, or biases that they may have towards trauma, the event, and/or the survivor. Reading articles such as this, accessing reputable resources, and seeking personal and professional support for one’s own emotions can be of great assistance regarding your capacity for supportive, empathetic, and respectful interactions with survivors.
A trauma-informed response is compassionate. A response of compassion displays empathy and kindness, and demonstrates an understanding and awareness that trauma can impact the survivor’s mind, body, and psyche. Furthermore, trauma responses can show up in daily life in the present and future in a variety of ways and across various environments. Survivors may have specific triggers, dissociate, experience flashbacks or nightmares, self-isolate, express a change in interests and behaviors, engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms (such as substance use and violence), and/or exhibit additional physical (changes in appetite), emotional (low self-esteem, guilt, shame, depression, anxiety), or cognitive (difficulty focusing and concentrating) symptoms. Therefore, a trauma-informed response is mindful and acknowledges such changes that a survivor may endure. With compassion, support may be offered to the survivor to treat the visible symptoms as well as the deep-rooted source of the impact that may occur when one experiences a traumatic event.
A trauma-informed response is empowering! This means that one’s response to a survivor provides them with knowledge, choices, and volition in their own care and recovery. Every survivor has a unique response to trauma and a unique set of strengths and resilience that will assist in their recovery. Responders can best support in eliciting the survivor’s strengths and increasing a survivor's self-advocacy through empowerment. This can include offering a menu of self-care and therapeutic options of varying modalities and mediums to assist with healthy coping. These choices prioritize safety and holistic wellbeing and are evidence-based. Examples include psychoeducation, at-home workbooks, talk therapy (individual and group), EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing), and trauma-informed yoga. There are a plethora of creative and adaptive ways to empower and support survivors, no one size fits all!
Above all, a trauma-informed response puts safety first. This means that responses aim to eliminate current and future harm for a survivor. This looks different for children and adult survivors. With child survivors, there is a duty to report and protect, whereas adult survivors have more agency in this process. Putting safety first means supporting survivors' access to medical treatment if needed and providing resources and education on documenting, reporting, and law enforcement options. This also includes assessing and monitoring a survivor’s mental health and seeking professional help and crisis management for immediate concerns.
A special note for survivors:
Sometimes you will not receive a trauma-informed response from a family member, friend, medical or mental health provider, law enforcement officer, or community member. Talking about and receiving help for trauma can be difficult, but engaging in conversations and undergoing support should be minimally intrusive, not re-traumatizing, and be focused on the present, the future, and solutions. This is an invitation for survivors to listen to your body and practice self-advocacy in honoring your needs and internal experiences. This looks like using your voice and setting boundaries. This means you can leave when you want to, and can take breaks at any time. You can ask for a different provider or different method of any treatment; there are other professionals and other options out there. You can ask for and tell others what you need and what is and what is not helpful at any time, and remember you can always change your mind.
For more detailed information, examples, and resources please visit these sources and resources in accompaniment to this article. Research, wisdom, and support does exist for survivors, family, friends, providers, and athletic communities on how to best respond to trauma.
- Friends and Family Guide from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- Navigating a Mental Health Crisis, a guide from the National Alliance on Mental Illness
- HelpingChildren and Adolescents Cope with Traumatic Events, an information sheet from the National Institute of Mental Health
- SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach
- Your life after trauma by MicheleRosenthal
- Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine
- What is Trauma?
- Trauma-informed care: What it is, and why it’s important
- Complex trauma can affect children in a multitude of ways. Here are some common effects.
The Meaning of the Photo - Kintsugi Pottery:
Much like the Japanese art form of Kintsugi, the restoration of broken objects with a beautiful lacquer, the trauma healing process can result in the rebuilding of the self into something stronger than the original. The objects of Kintsugi and the self share that there is distinctly a before and after in regard to breaking or experiencing a traumatic event. And, with time, effort, and support, the pieces and the self can be resiliently mended.
Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA
Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether