Authors: Teddy McGlynn-Wright, MSW and Leslie Briner, MSW (March 2021)
Years ago, the authors were two of several brought into a local alternative school that had reached out in the wake of several suicides and homicides in their student body. The typical crisis response was to bring in mental health professionals and social workers and have them available to the students and faculty for grief counseling. After doing this half a dozen times and being only midway through the year, the principal reached out to a wider group, including pediatricians, activists, and educators. A significant part of the framework that we are presenting to you is owed to that school, that principal, and those who came together over and over again to better understand what was killing our children.
In the years since sitting at student desks in a spare classroom in South Seattle, we have written, spoken, presented, reflected, and refined what we now call the Integrative Trauma and Healing Framework. It is composed of the following four statements, each of which we will unpack briefly here.
1. Trauma and healing are embodied on 5 levels: individual, collective, systemic, intergenerational and/or historical.
2. Trauma is the harmful interruption of safety, agency, dignity and/or belonging– fundamental needs of all human beings.
3. Trauma is experienced in the body-brain, overwhelming our ability to cope with and integrate thoughts, sensations, and emotions connected to an experience.
4. Pathways to healing occur anytime we do anything that restores and/or promotes safety, agency, dignity and belonging and moves bodies towards integration and wholeness.
These four statements represent a continuation (and hopefully a refinement) of what trauma is. We do not see the current definitions as incorrect, but incomplete. In our social work training, we were primarily introduced to trauma through its effects: intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, dissociation, etc. For a relatively concise history of the controversy of the diagnosis, check out: The Professional Counselor, Trauma Redefined. We see trauma by its long shadow, but have had a much more difficult time describing what exactly is casting that shadow beyond the textbook definition of “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation”.
We offer this as a cohesive framework for understanding and responding to trauma that specifically does not require years of training or a complex statistical manual to comprehend. To that end, this framework is descriptive more than prescriptive (though statement four does give some direction about what can help us heal). It describes what causes trauma, what trauma is and gives us a way to respond to it, in ourselves, our communities, and societies as ‘natural helpers’, people who are likely to encounter trauma and who are frequently around. It gives us a nuanced sense of what ‘flavor’ of trauma someone might have experienced without having to know much about the incident.
It further provides ways to respond to harm that are not clinical interventions. There is, of course, a role for clinical interventions in trauma and healing, but it is not the only way that people(s) heal from trauma. In ourselves, communities, and societies we are all capable of being in healing relationships as friends, siblings, roommates, partners, mentors, aunties, etc. Since the time we are in direct therapeutic contact with a therapist or counselor is dwarfed by the time we are out and about living our lives it seems imperative that we have ways of understanding what one another is going through and pathways to support healing and transform the conditions causing the trauma in the first place.
1. Trauma and healing are embodied on 5 levels: individual, collective, systemic, intergenerational and/or historical.
This is a basic ecological framework. We recognize that individuals are embedded within larger contextual structures and that this is a two-way influential relationship. Larger groups are made up of smaller groups and trauma and healing can take place at any of these levels.
Individual/interpersonal trauma is experienced at the level of the individual and has been the primary focus of research and discourse around trauma thus far. Collective trauma is experienced within a group, typically a racial, ethnic, religious, socio-cultural, and/or geographic target group. The trauma is connected to that group’s collective experience and/or social identities. Systemic trauma occurs from policies, practices, and laws that are traumatic in their intents or effects and is inflicted by and within systems that have widely perceived legitimacy and power. Historical trauma is a large-scale collective trauma inflicted by one group on other groups with the explicit intent of massive harm, including genocide and annihilation. The holocaust and internment during WWII, and chattel slavery, colonization, and use of boarding schools for indigenous children into the 1970’s in the United States are all examples of historical trauma. Intergenerational trauma is somewhat unique in that it describes and contains the modes of transmission for trauma generically, environmentally, and behaviorally.
We use the term “embodied” intentionally. First, to describe a thoroughness and to re-body our understanding of individual trauma so that it isn’t merely something that happens to an individual person, primarily impacting their brain. Rather, trauma occurs throughout the whole body-brain as do the pathways to healing. Second, we acknowledge that there are collective, systemic, intergenerational, and cultural bodies, all experiencing trauma and healing in their relative contexts. These bodies align with the different levels at which trauma and healing occur. This offers a framework to both name the presence of collective, systemic and/or historical traumas and to cultivate specific opportunities and strategies for healing on those levels.
Our almost exclusive focus in mainstream trauma discourse has been on the individual occurrences and impacts of trauma. However, simply put, collective trauma needs collective healing. Systemic trauma needs accountability and restorative/transformative justice. Historical trauma needs acknowledgement and transformation within cultures and societies. And we need to look to the modes of intergenerational transmission of trauma in order to deepen our understanding and capacity for healing and transformation.
2. Trauma is the harmful interruption of safety, agency, dignity and belonging—fundamental needs of all human beings.
Much of the Integrative Trauma and Healing Framework was seeded by practitioners and teachers of Generative Somatics, a group of politicized healers grown out of the Bay Area, California. What we discovered through engagement with social workers, public health professionals, teachers, students, and others was that clinical definitions of trauma were useful for diagnosing and treating trauma at a clinical (individual) level. However, when describing trauma at the other levels of our experience, we needed a definition that could capture the vast ways in which people experience that which leaves the ‘indelible imprint’ that is often ascribed to trauma. We needed framing that went beyond the realm of clinical impacts and actually described what trauma is— a harmful interruption of safety, agency, dignity, or belonging.
Safety- A sense of being physically, psychologically, emotionally secure. Having all basic needs met in ways that don’t cause harm or exploitation.
Agency- The ability to make a decision, experience reasonable consequences for that decision, and make another decision.
Dignity– A sense of power and worthiness that is not based on harm or dehumanization.
Belonging– Being a full member of a group. Being in meaningful relationships with people, the planet, spirit, and/or other living beings.
The reality of our current social, cultural, and economic conditions (at least since colonization) is that we don’t experience these 4 fundamentals as birthrights. We experience them as needing to be earned, traded, or granted by some outside authority. People and collectives spend significant resources hustling for safety, agency, dignity and belonging instead of on activities and pursuits that cultivate wellness and conditions where all people can thrive. Hence, trauma occurs when a person, group or system interrupts our ability to maintain these fundamentals in harmful ways. These interruptions can feel like constriction, overextension, erosion and/or destruction–they can leave the “indelible imprint” after a single experience or many years of chipping away.
In our clinical and community experiences, we witnessed countless situations where people were trading one or more of these fundamentals to keep the others intact. In Teddy’s work with young people vulnerable to gang involvement, he often witnessed young people trading the physical safety of carrying a gun for the belonging of being a member of a gang. Leslie’s experiences with young people in the sex trades showed youth frequently giving up safety and belonging to maintain a sense of agency.
3. Trauma is experienced in the body-brain, overwhelming our ability to cope with and integrate thoughts, feelings and emotions connected to an experience.
This is the way that trauma is often most obvious to those of us who have experienced it or witnessed a loved one moving through it. We experience overwhelming emotionality so intense that we numb out, in order to move along with our daily lives. It is the time-travel that people describe when they say they are being ‘triggered.’ Our bodies are going back in time in an attempt to correct something that has already happened. Typically, our emotional experiences are like writing in a journal with traumatic experiences pressing down so hard that it leaves furrows pages later, or even tears through the page and stains the subsequent pages with ink. This is what we mean when we use words like ‘indelible’ or ‘stuck’.
Our threat response systems are physiological, not just psychological and often not logical and this is as true of the collective body as it is of the individual body. When an individual or collective perceives a threat the flight, fight, freeze, appease response is fast, decisive and automatic. Controlled by our ancient amygdala, our threat response systems have one job and that is to survive. Given the conditions of poverty, abuse and oppression, it makes perfect sense that many people are navigating perpetual activation of their threat response system. Then, over time, the threat response becomes stuck on default. Even when we describe physical traumas, such as a broken leg, we acknowledge a harm to one part is a harm to the whole body. When healing from a broken bone we need other muscle groups and systems to compensate and activate to enable that recovery. Healing, too is a process in which it is rare that we would consider a harm to the part not to be a harm to the whole. “any amputation is a physical and psychic reality that must be integrated into a new sense of self.” Cancer Journals Audre Lorde intro, p. 9
4. Pathways to healing occur anytime we do anything that restores and promotes safety, agency, dignity and belonging and moves bodies towards integration and wholeness.
Finally, to our favorite of the four: how do we heal? We are in fact, healing every day. And every day that we wake up is another day that we get to heal from the many harms that we experience as people consistently exposed to suffering and oppression. Each of us, individually and collectively, should have universal access to healing. This includes the knowledge, skills and tools to promote healing in our selves, families, communities and societies and the underlying belief that we all deserve healing and have it within ourselves to cultivate that reality.
This final statement operates not just at the individual level but at each of the 5 levels we described earlier. It engages our imaginations (which is a documented resilience-builder) to consider what transformation might look and feel like. What we would have to do to promote and restore collective dignity to a group that has had their dignity destroyed or seriously impinged upon. (The recent restoration of voting rights to people with felony convictions in Florida is one great example of this.) Who at the collective, systemic, and cultural levels are situated to promote and restore safety, agency, dignity and belonging? What could public institutions and systems be like if they were truly dedicated to providing universal basic needs to all people like housing, food, water, health care, education, transportation and utilities? How can we build cultures rooted deep in dignity and striving for liberation? The pathways are endless and available to us.
We hope you found this brief exploration of the Integrative Trauma and Healing Framework helpful. This framework comes from years of practice, observation, collaboration, reflection, and refinement and while not perfect, this reflects our best current thinking and is as succinct as we would like it to be. Please use them with attribution (authors names and link to this post) and be on the lookout for a deeper dive into these concepts in the coming months.