It was a CPR certification class. My co-workers and I made jokes about the weird blue plastic dummies around the room, eerie robot-like disembodied heads and chests, mouths agape. The workshop facilitators began and we settled into our seats. I was expecting two hours of learning some new, helpful skills. Laughing with my friends about saving the lives of what looked like the cast of Avatar. Gaining confidence to help in a situation that I would in likely never encounter. An easy workday, downtime out of my normally busy routine.

Twenty minutes later, I found myself huddled on the floor of the conference center’s public bathroom, wondering if I might need CPR myself, trying to catch my breath between jagged sobs and flashbacks.

“Trigger Warning”

This phrase has received a lot of attention as of late. Articles posted online, for example, may start with a trigger warning (TW, for short) and a short list of, well, horrible things. “TW for sexual assault, misogyny, rape culture.” The writer is giving the reader a heads-up: if you struggle with these topics, please be aware. Take care of yourself. I don’t want to surprise you.

The phrase, like most anything on the Internet these days, has also had some push back: allegations of coddling people, that trigger warnings contribute to a society of weaklings, unable to deal with reality.

I’ll posit that folks who benefit from trigger warnings have dealt with reality in a way others cannot imagine. And they deserve some care taking.

Trauma-Informed Practice

Research indicates that a good number of us have been traumatized. What does that mean? The Sidran Institute defines trauma as “…responses to powerful one-time incidents like accidents, natural disasters, crimes, surgeries, deaths, and other violent events. It also includes responses to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse, neglect, combat, urban violence, concentration camps, battering relationships, and enduring deprivation. This definition intentionally does not allow us to determine whether a particular event is traumatic; that is up to each survivor.”

To engage in trauma-informed care requires you understand the prevalence of trauma in society (very high), the effects trauma has on a person (significant), and how to work with that person in a way that does not bring up again, or trigger, that trauma.

For example, if an individual flees an abusive relationship where their abuser controlled their every move, it may be very challenging for them to live under the restrictive rules of a domestic violence shelter. Being told they have to sign in and out, when they’re allowed to do laundry may trigger their previous trauma.Triggers can be as direct as the example above, or it can be as seemingly abstract as a smell. The reminder brings that person back to a state of fear, panic, or vulnerability.

Trauma-Informed Facilitation

So what do we do with this knowledge? If we’re working one-on-one with someone as a therapist or healthcare provider, we may have time to sit down and take a history of the person’s traumatic experiences. They can tell us their triggers or we can explore them together. But if we’re facilitators, and we have one day with 300 people, it’s a different task. How can facilitators work through a trauma-informed lens?

Trigger warnings

Here is the thing, you don’t need to call this a “trigger warning,” just let your group know what’s on the agenda. Share the outline some of the topics for the day so that the group can have an idea of what is coming.

Give people permission to leave

Saying something after sharing your agenda like “If at any time you feel you need to leave, that’s fine with me. YOU are empowered to take care of yourself.” This lets participants know they don’t need to get permission to step out.

Be thoughtful about your language

Words are powerful. Check in about what language different marginalized groups are using to describe themselves and their experiences and follow their lead. A group of young LGBTQ participants may celebrate the word “queer” and embrace it for themselves. A group of baby boomer generation gay men, however, may remember that word as a slur and recall violence they faced while hearing the word said. This is a perfect time to practice The Platinum Rule: treat others how they want to be treated.

Don’t make it about you

If you are asked to facilitate around topics that are traumatizing for you, turn those gigs down. Your discomfort will come through, and it is not the job of your participants to take care of you. For more in this idea check out our conversation on self-disclosure.

People exhibit different behaviors when experiencing a trigger

Sometimes we may read interruptions, crass jokes, disconnection, or agitation as a participant trying to give us a hard time, when in fact it may be how they are dealing with their trigger. Checking in with someone when you notice problematic behavior can be helpful not only in helping your facilitation stay on track but also to acknowledge their hard, hurt, or emotions.

Follow up

If you notice that someone in your group had to leave and you suspect they were possibly experiencing a trigger, follow up with them one-on-one after your facilitation, and offer them any resources you think might be relevant or helpful to them.

Know that you won’t be able to avoid every trigger of your group

People have trauma around multiple, complex issues. The trigger for those experiences may be so seemingly unrelated to the event, we can’t possibly know what they might be. What we can do it practice empathy. Your participant may also be surprised to find themselves triggered and that’s okay. In fact, that was me in that CPR training. I did not arrive that day with any thoughts other than “I need to pick up my co-worker early enough so we can make a coffee run before this thing starts.” Not even a tiny part of my brain was thinking that I would be even a tiny bit triggered. And yet, there I was. The facilitator of our CPR training played a video for us. We all snickered at the overly dramatic acting and big 80s hairstyles. But then, as the main character fell to the floor of the mall food court, I began to experience echoing in my ears and tunnel vision. As the other actors called for help, asking the abyss of the mall if anyone knew CPR, I realized, “This is how my mom died.” This training was required for my job. I tried so hard to stay in my seat. I began sweating. I couldn’t see straight. Eventually, I jumped out of my chair and ran. I think about those feelings each time I walk into a facilitation space–surprise, fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, embarrassment, frustration. How can facilitators prepare a space that can prevent, or, if necessary, make space for, those emotions?

Self-Assessment for Facilitators

Before heading into your next facilitation, consider these questions:

  • What topics will I cover? How are those potentially traumatic for participants?
  • Am I equipped to handle a disclosure of trauma during this training? What would I need to do in order to feel equipped?
  • What continuing education can access to better understand trauma, and triggers?
  • Can I enlist the help of my host?
  • What are my triggers, and where am I at in processing them? Can I effectively facilitate these topics, or should I refer a client to another facilitator?
  • What can I do to make the environments in which I facilitate feel safe?

A facilitator does not need to become an expert in psychology, but they do need to understand their position. Effective facilitators affect their participants. Because we wield that power, we also need to have tools to navigate the potential outcomes.

Mary-Margaret Sweeney is the Manager of Training Services Domestic Violence Network, a domestic violence advocacy and education organization in Indianapolis, IN. She creates trainings around intimate partner violence, sexual assault, reproductive health, cultural competency, and loves taking new requests that challenge her. She has worked as a sex and relationship educator for over a decade, and believes that safe, healthy, good sex only happens in safe, healthy, and good relationships.