Trauma Informed Care: The Healing Power of Choices

A black chalkboard with a hand holding a sign that reads: CHOICE. Colorful arrows are drawn around the sign.

I think most people can think back to a time when we felt trapped and helpless. Maybe it seemed like the world was spiraling out of control. Perhaps our life was unraveling before our eyes, or we had just lost something that mattered to us deeply. The reality is, many things in life are out of our control, and sometimes those things hurt. When that happens, our lack of control can be a painful reality to face.

There is no single reason why some people bounce back from adversity while others continue to struggle. To start, our environments play a role. For example, we benefit a lot from supportive relationships. Access to healthy food, clean water, housing, and safe neighborhoods are also extremely important. So are our personalities. Unfortunately, these things are often outside of our control.

You may have heard the term trauma-informed care before. Trauma-informed care involves acting in ways that are helpful to people who have experienced adversity. We do this regardless of whether anyone in the room has actually experienced trauma (as far as we know). We don’t assume that people are definitely traumatized, but we don’t assume they aren’t, either. Instead, we treat everyone like they could have trauma, because as it turns out, trauma-informed care is good for everyone.

The principles of trauma informed care are safety, trust, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. These are all important, but I want to focus on the principle of choice. We all benefit from feeling like we have a say in what happens to us. This is called a sense of agency. When our sense of agency has been taken away by something painful, it can leave us feeling helpless and scared. When this happens, even small choices can sometimes help us heal. At the very least, they can keep us from feeling even more helpless and hurt.

Imagine for a moment that you are recovering from a very difficult illness and your close friend has come over to make you dinner. Instead of assuming what you want, your friend says, “would you like lasagna or soup tonight? I see you have ingredients for both.” Maybe that seems small (and maybe you actually want tacos), but for someone with trauma, this can be a big deal. Offering choices shows respect, and it helps people have a say in what happens to them. Even when things are still out of our control—like being too sick to take care of ourselves —small choices can reassure a person that they do have agency.

We may not have perfect control over our lives, but we all deserve some control. It is possible to play a role in putting that control back in the hands of those we care about. This is one very small example of what trauma-informed care can look like in a personal relationship, but there is so much more to learn. If you want to read more, I suggest this resource for direct support professionals. If you don’t read anything else, this article on taking action has a short list of supportive things you can do for the person in front of you.  


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