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Trauma-Informed Recovery Coaching

Over the last several years as awareness and acceptance of the connection between trauma and addictions have become more widely spread, recovery coaches around the world, are gaining valuable training as trauma-informed recovery coaches in order to better support their clients.

The term “trauma”, as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), refers to experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions. It can refer to “a single event, multiple events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically and emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well being” (SAMHSA, 2012, p. 2).

When you cannot fight or flee, — as in the case of a traumatised individual — your brain tunes out in order to cope. Tuning out is a way of coping with overwhelming stress and this way of coping or self-soothing, can lead to addiction.

Although the definition of trauma is well known and accepted in many western cultures, many clients living in in countries where addiction is still regarded as a moral failing, — or “rebellious behaviour by youth” or other stigmatized misconception, — have the additional hurdle to jump through when their trauma is misunderstood or unaddressed.

‘Self-awareness is the bottom line: when we wake up and become properly self-aware, we are able to address the traumatic childhood issues that leave us vulnerable to addiction. But because the process inevitably involves pain, we don’t address the issues until we absolutely have to – until something happens that forces us to face up to the fact that our lives aren’t working as they should.” - Gabor Maté

As trauma-informed recovery coaches working internationally and throughout the world with diverse peoples and cultures, we have a responsibility to provide the latest research and information, psychoeducation and knowledge, helping our clients to better understand the concepts, effects and symptoms of addiction and how it relates to trauma. This — as well as all the work we do — is done with compassion and sensitivity, bearing in mind the possible misconceptions and lack of knowledge available in some countries and communities. For instance, informing a parent that their child may be responding to a potential childhood trauma without taking into consideration any insight of the country's (i.e. cultural) awareness of trauma, may be received with great offence, anger and misunderstanding. 

Many societies may tend to deny, ignore or not see the significance of trauma on addiction. And due to the lack of awareness of trauma’s long term, damaging effects on a person, we may witness ongoing verbal abuse, such as name calling; we may observe the client being additionally retraumatized or being ostracized by the family; we may not be informed of abuse or trauma due to the misunderstandings of what is defined as trauma, or worse, if we attempt to use the word trauma with our client’s caregiver without their understanding of the concept of trauma, they may feel judged believing that we are accusing them of violence or extreme acts of abuse when it may not be the case.

Often times the very people who have been exposed to trauma have limited understanding of what trauma is, as well, and how it has effected -- or is affecting -- their lives. When people talk about trauma, there is often an emphasis on PTSD and the impact of single traumatic incident on a person’s functioning (e.g. being in an accident or assaulted), however early adverse childhood events are often the root of addiction and a life lived in 'survival mode'. Many people may struggle to make sense of their experiences, and this is where the role of providing psychoeducation about trauma can not be underestimated. Bearing witness, providing a vocabulary for, being a container for, and sharing the common are the very gifts we can provide as trauma-informed recovery coaches and may be the very key to a lasting recovery.

Essential to trauma-informed recovery coaching is ensuring safety, both physically and psychologically, and — of utmost importance — avoiding re-traumatisation.

Many individuals struggling with addictions may not have thought that their addiction had been trauma-related, and once they are listened to by someone with a shared understanding and perhaps similar story of trauma and recovery, they will begin to gain self-compassion and healing will take place.

As we help our clients gain a better understanding of the role trauma has had in their addiction, in how, if left untreated may lead to a relapse, we gently guide our clients to help them heal the underlying trauma so that their recovery can be long lasting. 

Along with our own honed coaching skills, we may need to engage or refer to other colleagues, professionals, or specialists to assist our clients. The tools for trauma recovery are vast and varied, and not always available in countries where we work, however since working online with clients has now become a standard modality of coaching, it is still critical to research and reach out to resources close to where our clients live. 

And as we work along side our clients it is essential that we not only assist our clients but ensure we are also engaged in our own trauma work and most important, practice self care and obtain supervision. Self care is an essential component of working as a trauma-informed recovery coach — this includes peeling the onion of our own traumatic histories. 

Some take-aways and reminders when working with clients with traumatic histories:

  • Make sure you are well informed about your client's and their family's background and history;
  • Become well informed about resources where you will be working if you are on a live-in job (the country, community, township, etc.);
  • Ensure you obtain emergency numbers, ambulance, police, hospitals near your clients;
  • Create a self-care plan while on long term assignments;
  • Ask other colleagues, supervisors or mentors about their experiences in other countries;
  • Use the IRSI Graduate page to ask for more background on experiences in different countries and communities;

Blog Post written by:
Evyan Donch