ArticlesNovember 2nd, 2023

How a trauma-informed approach transformed the way I do research

A photo of Charlotte McCombe
Charlotte McCombe, Strategic Designer

From flu to floods, bushfires to political breakdown – the world we live in is becoming unpredictable.

It is key to understand the social impacts of these disasters to develop effective responses and mitigations. Often this means engaging people with lived experience of these events. When the devastating effects of natural disasters leave deep marks of trauma on both individuals and entire communities, how do we as researchers and practitioners work in a way that doesn’t cause further harm?

Learning about trauma-informed facilitation made me rethink the way I conduct research. It recognises that a large majority of the population has experienced trauma of one kind or another and the chance of someone being triggered is more a matter of when and not if. Trauma is the experience and effects of overwhelming stresses that arise from the activation of the instinctive survival response. It is something that happens in the nervous system.

Someone can be triggered when they are "reminded, consciously, unconsciously, or somatically, of a past traumatic event/perceived threat and goes back in time in some way to that event… resulting in an altered or extreme state of consciousness". (Kezelman & Stavropoulos 2012)

Trauma-informed facilitation teaches how to recognise physiological signs of trauma to approach working with communities in a non-triggering way. We become more aware of the potential impact we as facilitators can have. This approach reminds us of our humanity and to prioritise the safety of participants first in any work we do.

Here are some ways I applied these learnings to my research on the community impacts of flooding and housing stress in the Northern Rivers.

1. Looking out for signs of distress

Trauma is something that happens on a physiological level and activates stress responses like flight or fight, disengagement or numbness. Staying alert to the verbal and non-verbal signs of distress helped me to know when to steer the conversation away from certain topics or use an intervention.

2. Intervening to create a safer conversation

Strategies such as offering to take a break or taking a beat to check in if they were feeling comfortable with where the conversation was heading helped me understand when to give space to participants.

3. Avoiding ‘research-robot-mode’

Sometimes in projects, you feel the pressure of getting the information you need within the allocated time. These goals are important but keep in mind the conversation may go to unexpected places. In the context of the flooding disaster, people had stories they wanted to speak out about. As facilitators, it was important to create time and make space to listen and allow participants to lead the conversation.

4. Providing a bridge to support

Any conversation has the potential to re-traumatise. Knowing this, we provided participants with access to a helpline or local service equipped to deal with these issues. This was discussed at the start and end of the interview.

5. Setting up robust project care

We understood that this work has the potential to cause vicarious trauma in practitioners. To avoid this, we scheduled regular debriefs post-interview and planned fortnightly chats with someone outside of the project. It was also important to keep up with other personal practices of self-care such as journaling and taking regular breaks.

On reflection, creating space to reflect and verbalise internal reactions with my team was essential in helping me process the difficult things we saw and bring my best self to work. Even if it feels odd at the time, project care in a space like this is a must.

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