Trauma-Informed Care for Therapists

trauma-informed care for therapists

Trauma and adverse childhood experiences can significantly impact a person’s long-term emotional, behavioral and physical health. If you are a physical, school-based or occupational therapist (OT), you’ll likely work with many people who have a history of trauma. For this reason, health providers are calling for increased trauma-informed care and approaches across the health and educational sectors.

A trauma-informed therapy approach can help you best support your patients’ needs. Learn more about trauma-informed therapy, its principles and how to become a trauma-informed therapist.

What Is Trauma-Informed Care?  

Trauma-informed care is a therapeutic approach that considers a patient’s life situation — past and present — to provide the most effective services for their needs. Rather than asking, “What’s wrong?” trauma-informed care shifts the focus to asking, “What happened to you?” 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) recognizes trauma as an event or series of events that could cause long-standing implications for a person’s health and functioning. Examples of trauma include exposure to violence, abuse, neglect, sexual assault, food insecurity or natural disasters. The definitions of trauma and treatment methods for patients continue to evolve, which is why it’s beneficial to stay up to date on types of trauma and ways to provide trauma-informed care for patients. 

Your services will be oriented toward healing, where you can potentially improve a patient’s engagement, treatment adherence and health outcomes. Occupational therapy and trauma-informed care can also help minimize avoidable care costs for social and health services. 

Essentially, as a trauma-informed therapist, you’ll seek to: 

  • Realize the significant impact of trauma and different paths for recovery
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in patients, families and staff
  • Incorporate knowledge about trauma into procedures and practices
  • Actively avoid re-traumatization

What Are the 6 Principles of Trauma-Informed Care?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) helped develop six trauma-informed care principles to lead training for health providers in public health emergencies. The training hopes to increase responder awareness of trauma and help them realize how it affects the communities where they work.

The six principles that guide the trauma-informed care approach include: 

  1. Safety: The first goal of trauma-informed care is to ensure patients and staff feel psychologically and physically safe. 
  2. Trustworthiness and transparency: Health providers should also ensure decisions are made with transparency and to build and maintain trust among patients. 
  3. Peer support: Individuals with shared experiences should be integrated into organizations and considered integral to service delivery.
  4. Collaboration and mutuality: Power differences between staff and clients should be leveled to support shared decision-making. 
  5. Empowerment and choice: The patient and staff strengths should be recognized, developed and validated, including the belief in resilience and the ability to heal from trauma. 
  6. Cultural, historical and gender issues: Historical trauma, biases and stereotypes, such as those based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or age, are recognized and addressed.

Remember that a trauma-informed approach won’t be accomplished through any single technique or checklist. It requires ongoing attention, awareness, compassion, sensitivity and sometimes cultural change at an organizational level. 

Why Therapists Need to Know About Trauma-Informed Care

There are several reasons therapists should learn about and take a trauma-informed approach to care. According to the CDC, just over 60% of American adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their childhood. 

Therapists are responsible for being trauma-informed and responding to each patient’s needs in the most comprehensive way possible. Doing so helps create a safe and supportive environment for the patient’s rehabilitation journey. 

By learning more about trauma-informed care, you can help your patient:

  • Avoid re-traumatization: The experience of reliving trauma can result in physical, emotional and psychological health conditions and hinder therapeutic rapport and the patient’s safety.
  • Increase overall health and well-being: When a therapist is aware of a patient’s history of trauma, this can help them develop specific goals and treatment approaches. By taking a trauma-informed approach, therapists can help their patients heal and recover holistically.
  • Feel empowered and safe: Therapists can make their patients feel supported by empowering patients, ensuring they feel safe in the development of their treatment. 
  • Be informed: By informing your patients regarding treatment options, it helps them feel they have more control over their treatment. Creating an environment of collaboration is essential for establishing trust between health care staff, patients and their families. 

Trauma has lasting implications on an individual’s health and well-being. By learning more about trauma-informed care and switching up your approach, you can more holistically support your patients on the journey to improve their physical, mental and emotional health. 

over 60% of American adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their childhood

How to Become a Trauma-Informed Therapist

A therapist that approaches each plan of care with function and their patient’s emotional well-being first demonstrates the effectiveness of physical, occupational and school-based therapy in trauma-informed care. 

Trauma-informed care for physical therapy might involve changing approaches when informed of a patient’s trauma history. For instance, some patients may prefer sit-to-stand assistance with equipment rather than a hands-on approach. 

Trauma-informed care for occupational therapy will take a similar approach. OT trauma-informed care might involve communicating the purpose and process of the activity before providing manual help. It also consists of identifying and respecting a patient’s gender preferences for close interactions like bed mobility tasks. 

A trauma-informed therapist will use person-centered care practices like:

  • Telling clients what is going to happen
  • Asking about their concerns
  • Giving them as much control as possible
  • Asking what can be done to make them more comfortable

All health care providers should create safe environments, recognize symptoms of traumatic stress and shift their responses to support patients in distress. Educating yourself, staying aware and being compassionate go a long way in your patient’s care. You can be a trauma-informed therapist by considering your patient’s thoughts and feelings first and foremost. 

learn more about trauma-informed care from ERI

Learn More About Trauma-Informed Care With Courses From ERI

Being a trauma-informed therapist can help your patients feel safe, empowered and supported. The best way to become a trauma-informed therapist is through education and awareness. ERI has the evidence-based practices to inform and inspire you on your career journey and improve outcomes for your patients.

ERI was founded to reveal how continuing education courses can benefit your career and standard care practices for your patients. We provide hands-on, experiential learning for occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, special educators and more. With our courses, you can even spread awareness of trauma-informed care to your staff to transform your workplace and support patients more holistically. 

Register with us today for live in-person courses, live virtual webinars and recorded online courses, or contact us to learn more.