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Working with Victims of Trauma: Remember this!

Fight, Flight, Flee, Flop: Understanding Trauma Responses

In our roles as healers, helpers, and engaged citizens, we all share a crucial responsibility: to recognize and stop the unintentional infliction of trauma on vulnerable individuals within our flawed systems. This responsibility stems from the urgent need to actively reverse the dynamics that lead to retraumatization—a process where individuals and communities are further traumatized by the very systems designed to support them after initial traumatic events. This phenomenon not only amplifies the original distress but also deepens the wounds and betrayal felt by survivors when their pain is dismissed, denied, or exacerbated by those meant to protect and care for them.

The Phenomenon of Retraumatization

Retraumatization occurs when the responses of institutions—be they inadequate, toxic, or punitive—trigger painful memories and unhealed wounds, thereby amplifying the survivors' original distress. It's akin to reopening wounds, leaving scars that run deeper with each occurrence. This deepened betrayal and damage become particularly pronounced when systems that are supposed to provide care, protection, and order instead contribute to the suffering. The situation worsens when authorities, tasked with safeguarding citizens, dismiss trauma responses or, worse, discipline them, leading to a toxic sense of helplessness that threatens the very sanity of those affected.

On a broader scale, societal retraumatization involves the marginalization of specific groups, branding them as inherently disordered, violent, or defective, rather than acknowledging the destabilizing impact of trauma. Such systemic issues—racism, homophobia, xenophobia, medical bias, and disproportionate incarceration—reinforce the misrepresentation of risk factors as character flaws, necessitating containment. Additionally, the media's exploitative coverage of minority struggles not only profits from these spectacles but also contributes to the retraumatization of both the victims and the audience, fostering phenomena like compassion fatigue and a normalized apathy towards suffering (Piotrkowski & Brannen, 2016).

The Deeper Impact of Retraumatization

The betrayal felt when systems and structures—expected to provide safety, support, and stability—inflict harm, whether intentionally or not, accelerates the destabilization of victims. This repeated betrayal erodes trust in leadership, authority, and the inherent goodness of society, particularly when individuals are faced with adversarial environments that seem impossible to escape. For many, this leads to a retreat from seeking further care or interventions, resulting in a profound sense of despair and isolation.

Minority youth are at an amplified risk of self-medicating their pain through harmful alternatives, perpetuating cycles of violence and trauma. Without addressing the root causes of these divisions, we continue to witness the symptoms of toxic inequality through public policies that fail to uplift humanity. Instead, these policies often reinforce societal divisions by attributing inherent threat levels to entire populations, rather than recognizing the unpredictable manifestations of trauma responses under oppressive conditions (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005).

The Importance of Cultural Literacy

To begin addressing these challenges, it's imperative to cultivate a deeper understanding of trauma's prevalence, manifestations, and the neurobiological underpinnings of survival responses. By researching the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences and inherited trauma patterns, we can start to appreciate how early life experiences shape adult health risks and behaviors. Recognizing trauma adaptations as survival strategies rather than character flaws allows for a more compassionate approach to those exhibiting signs of trauma, paving the way for more informed and empathetic interactions (Felitti et al., 2019).

Preventing Interpersonal Retraumatization

In our daily interactions, especially with individuals carrying the weight of trauma, it is crucial to adopt practices that avoid retraumatization. This involves compassionate communication, prioritizing non-judgmental listening, and creating spaces where individuals feel safe to share their experiences. By reframing our understanding of trauma and its manifestations, we can begin to dismantle the systemic barriers that perpetuate retraumatization, fostering a society that values healing and inclusivity over division and prejudice.

The Time is Now

The urgent need for a societal reevaluation of systems that disproportionately impact traumatized populations calls for a radical openness to addressing racism, inequality, and the myriad ways in which societal structures contribute to widespread distress. Through truth and reconciliation processes that recognize and address the privileges and disadvantages baked into our systems, we can move toward a society that genuinely supports all its members.

The path to healing systemic oppression and its traumatic impacts requires a commitment to radical empathy and justice, recognizing the interconnectedness of our experiences and the shared humanity that binds us. By embracing our collective responsibility to create a more equitable and compassionate world, we can begin to heal the deep wounds inflicted by systemic oppression and move towards a future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

For professionals working in healthcare, education, social services, and coaching, developing trauma-informed practices is essential for preventing retraumatization and promoting healing. The NeuroNarrative Approach™ offers a comprehensive framework for integrating these principles into your work, empowering you to create safe, supportive spaces for your clients and students. To learn more about how you can deepen your understanding of trauma-informed care and expand your skill set, visit Explore classes, coaching, retreats, and intensives designed to equip you with the tools and insights needed to become a catalyst for change in your community.

In Solidarity,



Bryant-Davis, T., & Ocampo, C. (2005). Racist incident–based trauma. The Counseling Psychologist, 33(4), 479-500.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (2019). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 56(6), 774-786.

Piotrkowski, C. S., & Brannen, S. J. (2016). Exposure, threat appraisal, and lost confidence as predictors of PTSD symptoms following September 11, 2001. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72(4), 476-485.

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