man on couch with his hands in his head, very discouraged

Why It Can Be So Hard to Meet the Needs of a Trauma-Impacted Person, Part One

Needs – we all have them. Some are basic: the need to eat, breathe, sleep, and experience meaningful, loving, and safe relationships.

In each stage of life, adults, children, and teens have needs that allow them to grow and develop in several ways: Physically, Intellectually, Emotionally, Socially, what we in LGI call PIES. Needs also exist as we grow and live relationally, morally, and spiritually. When someone experiences serious trauma, especially as an infant, child, or teenager, new needs arise and often interfere with a person’s ability to meet basic needs in addition to those created by that trauma.   

In my recent blogs, I have invited my readers to explore the nature of trauma and the many ways it can impact a person. Someone who has been deeply impacted by trauma may have struggled to figure out how to meet the needs trauma creates. The more traumas someone has experienced, the more serious and complex their traumas are. The deeper the wounding, the more challenging it is to meet their needs.    

We need to appreciate that trauma-impacted people are different in many ways from those who are not deeply impacted by trauma. Their brain architecture is different, their neurological responses to themselves, others, and the world are different. Their abilities to be open, honest, transparent, vulnerable, articulate, and able to process life experiences with others are usually deeply impaired. It can be extremely difficult for them to trust others and to even trust themselves. They often live in a constant state of anxiety and fear, struggling to experience any form of self-confidence or self-compassion. They often are very isolated and lonely, struggling to have relationships where they can be open, authentic, and vulnerable.

Meeting the needs of the trauma-impacted can be extremely difficult for all these reasons. No one should be overly confident or cavalier about how to do this. In some cases, it may be virtually impossible for even very caring individuals to come close enough to help meet needs in a meaningful way.

That does not mean that kind, compassionate, patient, tolerant, and hopeful responses do not help those who are trauma-impacted. Those wishing to help need to be highly aware and appreciate the pain and struggles a trauma-impacted person lives with every day and how that can impede their abilities to have authentic interactions or dialogues with others. Being with people who are kind and gentle, who do not pressure, criticize, judge, or condemn can be a very new experience for some trauma impacted. At a very core, primitive level, the experience of being around somebody with these attributes can be a new experience – which can signal that it is a dangerous experience because it is unfamiliar. Attempting to meet the needs of a trauma-impacted person can be complex and confusing.

The continuum of responses around meeting the needs of those trauma impacted must be based on recognizing where that person might be in terms of safety and abilities to trust in any given moment. Dr. Perry has an image he calls the Intimacy Barrier (see video below) to explain just how cautious those interacting with trauma-impacted people need to be and how their needs and degrees of safety can change moment by moment.

Trauma triggers can be so sensitive. Even a certain facial expression, hand gesture, way of standing, making eye contact, or any form of physical contact, voice-tone, phrases used in conversation, even detecting a smell connected with a traumatic experience, can all be triggers that result in the trauma-impacted person behaving in any of the trauma-related ways just described.

An important first step in attempting to meet needs of a trauma impacted person requires high degrees of observing that person to gain some clues about where they are in any given moment and how much they can tolerate being connected with a caring person. That can then be followed by engaging in some level of communication that is non-threatening. It also means developing a very thick skin when that person responds as if you were intentionally out to hurt them, have suddenly become threatening or dangerous, are no longer trustworthy and now need to be treated as if they are dangerous.

This information provides you with the beginnings of understanding and appreciating the challenges someone faces when attempting to help meet the needs of a trauma-impacted person. It’s humbling and sobering. The good news is there are some strategies that offer hope in succeeding in those attempts.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Have you tried to help meet the needs of someone with a significant trauma history? Did you experience any of the responses described in this blog? If so, how did that make you feel?
  2. If you are someone with a significant trauma history, how successful have you been in meeting some of the needs your trauma experiences caused you? Have people who care about you tried to help meet those needs? How did you respond to that?
  3. If you are someone with a significant trauma history, what do you wish people trying to help you knew?

While we never ask any participants in LGI training to be pseudo-therapists, we know we can learn a lot from the wisdom of those who train clinicians. Peter Levine is such an expert. His excellent book, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past; A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory proffers many key principles about what is involved in healing trauma-impacted children and adults.