Trauma affects us all. Whether it comes from our own experiences, or we feel the impact vicariously, chances are that negative interactions we have had in the past could have been resolved differently had all parties involved been trauma-informed. For most of us, this may be misdirected energy in a classroom, a conversation in a clinical setting, or even simply witnessing someone you love become withdrawn, distant, or suddenly defiant. What about more dangerous situations?
How many of us are put in life-threatening positions on a daily basis? More importantly, how many of us are prepared to act in safe way?
Starr Certified Trainer Jenny Sloan recently had the opportunity to discuss and identify solutions to these very issues when she was approached by a local police department.
“It happened a bit by chance. I’m an associate clinical director for juvenile justice, and I was introduced to a detective from the department,” recalled Sloan. “What he learned about my trauma-informed training struck a chord with him, and mentioned how his staff could benefit, given their daily dealings with subjects who may be violent or resistant in the field. While I hadn’t worked with a police force in the past, we train regularly on how to use verbal de-escalation and non-violent approaches to help co-regulate people in crisis. Perhaps we could apply those materials, as well as education on the brain-body connection in general to help these officers.”
As expected, the universal application of a trauma-informed lens became apparent.
What we must remember when working with escalated populations:
- When confronted with a person who is activated or in crisis we might perceive them as a threat or having some sort of motivation to hurt people, when really it might be that they need help controlling and regulating themselves. Oftentimes, if we don’t apply a trauma-informed lens we can mistake crisis for aggression, and that informs our response in a very different way. If we think someone’s going to hurt us, we’re going to get defensive and aggressive. What they really need is to be approached in an empathetic way and met where they’re at to help them calm down. And of course: safety first. No one ever wants to use force if it’s not necessary. When we can understand where a person’s coming from, we have a much better chance of not having to escalate to that point.
- It starts with the brain! When a person in crisis, the executive part of the brain that rationalized and makes decisions goes offline. It usually does all the complex organization of thought, emotion, and action, but if a person is in trauma, that part of the brain is not accessible. If you’re trying to rationalize with someone and it’s not working, it may not be that they’re being defensive or not wanting to cooperate with you. It could be that they’re still activated and that part of the brain is not plugged in. Rather than an escalating situation, one must focus on getting them back online—helping them feel safe before things get out of control.
- Above all! Trauma is not an excuse, but rather one avenue to understand why someone acts the way they do in any situation. Keeping this at the forefront of our minds is critical to care in any setting.
The above tips are offered through a lens of general advice for de-escalating any behavior, and should not be considered resources to replace actual law-enforcement training.