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“What happened to you?” It’s a simple question that can have a profound effect on a relationship. It’s also the title of a New York Times bestseller by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry, who examine the physical and emotional effects of trauma. After reading the book, several PCHAS staff shared their own experience with trauma-informed care.
The book discusses the impact of distress on the developing brain, which becomes programmed to mobilize a stress-response system. “The experiences in the first years of life are disproportionately powerful in shaping how your brain organizes,” Perry writes. PCHAS employee Sheila Davis, a veteran social worker, compares the brain to a system of roads. “We may take the same road every day, even if it’s full of potholes, just because it’s familiar. Trying to change the routine feels awkward and disruptive. But the change can be worth the trouble.”
One of our Child and Family specialists taught this approach to Marian, a mom in her thirties who lost her husband without warning. Marian’s children, like many people who experience trauma, got through each day in “fight or flight” mode. With counseling, Marian saw her children’s needs when they didn’t have words to voice them and met those needs with patience, love and compassion.
Counselor Travis Jones, who works with foster families, finds that phrases like “that was traumatic” have become watered down in casual conversation. “Using the three key aspects of trauma (the event, the experience and the effects) to better define and understand it are helpful,” he says. “It’s also important to simply acknowledge that many people can share an event but walk away with a very different experience.”
The “What happened to you?” approach dovetails with The PCHAS Way, a standard of meeting children and adults where they are, psychologically, to recover from trauma. As a compassionate, non-judgmental lens, it views the person not just in the moment of crisis but before and after the crisis.
Winfrey and Perry’s book has an example of a veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder who panicked and hid for cover when he heard a motorcycle backfire. That resonated with Rachel, a PCHAS social worker. She recalls a client who panicked during her homework sessions. “When we talked about this out-of-character behavior, I realized that she needed to work only with female tutors. She had experienced sexual abuse by a male and was very uncomfortable with a male hovering over her textbook or gesturing to her worksheet. Once I realized this, I got her the tutor that she needed. I have found that using the idea of ‘What happened to you?’ instead of ‘What's wrong with you?’ helps me to see the client for who they could be, instead of who they are today.”
Another social worker, Christopher, sees the impact of early trauma on a boy who was adopted at age 8. A few years after joining his adoptive family, the boy still wrestles with feeling secure in their love. Christopher also knew a different client, a survivor of abuse, whose disruptive behavior was triggered by the smell of a certain perfume. The youth’s abuser had worn the same fragrance and the smell prompted a “flight, fight or freeze” reaction. Christopher believes that “understanding this concept of trauma helps professionals empathize and build rapport with the people they work with.”
Physical and emotional effects of trauma can be long-lasting and healing takes time. With evidence-based best practices and compassion, PCHAS specialists teach coping skills, work on daily routines and help families develop healthy relationships.
Learn more by calling 800-888-1904 or contacting us online.