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Opinion

McGuire: How to help those affected by trauma

Community Voice

Maureen McGuire is media and advocacy coordinator for Family Shelter Service.
Maureen McGuire is media and advocacy coordinator for Family Shelter Service.

The loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, a car accident. Any one of these disturbing incidents can be traumatic. Or it could be something far more insidious – domestic violence, sexual assault or other crimes. In short, trauma ensues when events or circumstances are experienced as threatening or harmful.

Many of us have experienced the aftermath of a traumatic episode. We may have experienced shock, anger, sadness, fear, guilt and/or withdrawal – all common reactions. Following a traumatic event, people can lose their sense of control, connection and meaning.

For survivors struggling with domestic violence, trauma is a constant companion. Rather than an isolated incident, it can go on for decades.

Because trauma “lives in the body,” it can cause physical changes in the brain when experienced over long periods of time, affecting that portion of the brain responsible for regulating emotional responses. People we once knew as lively and social can become isolated, withdrawn and unresponsive. Victims can lose their ability to recognize danger signs.

Trauma-informed care is an important technique for reaching anyone affected by trauma. This approach is the foundation of every interaction with the domestic violence survivors we help at Family Shelter Service.

Trauma-informed care can be as simple as asking survivors where in the room they’d like to sit during a counseling session or as detailed as how we design interior spaces to be more welcoming. It affects how we answer the hotline and speak with survivors who are telling us about the trauma in their lives – possibly for the first time. And it’s about learning the triggers and how to minimize them.

“Sights, sounds and smells can become associated with the traumatic event,” said Lisa Horne, Family Shelter Service director of safer living. “In one instance, our client was triggered by bright lights. We always made sure to have low lighting for her sessions.”

“It’s about respecting their choices, giving them back their power,” she continued. “And understanding the needs of each individual.”

Horne says trauma-informed care calls for adopting a different mindset, a skill that is honed over time.

“When we look at these members of our community through the lens of judgment, we neglect to acknowledge the realities of their life – something we may know nothing about," she said.

Since none of us can fully comprehend the life experiences of another, everyone can benefit by incorporating this type of care into their daily lives, Horne said.

“If we intentionally did this all of the time, our interactions would change significantly, and the world would be a much better place," she said.

Founded in 1976, Family Shelter Service helps victims of domestic abuse rebuild their lives and break the cycle of domestic violence, creating a safer community for all. For more information, please visit familyshelterservice.org. A 24/7 hotline is available at 630-469-5650.

Maureen McGuire is media and advocacy coordinator for Family Shelter Service.

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