De-mystifying Trauma-Informed Coaching

What it is, and how to decide whether it’s right for you
two women sitting on chair

(Originally published in the Healing and C-PTSD Virtual Magazine, The Chronicles, Summer 2024)

Chances are you’ve heard the term “trauma-informed coaching”. While it’s gained exposure in recent years, many people are still unclear about what it is. As a certified trauma-informed coach I often get questions like:

  • “Is this type of coaching right for me?”
  • “What can I expect from trauma-informed coaching vs. any other coaching?”
  • “Is this only for people who have experienced abuse?”
  • “What if I don’t know if I have trauma? Could this still benefit me?”
  • “How is it different from therapy? Should I do one of them or both?”

Whether you’re considering working with a trauma-informed coach, or simply want to know more about the topic, this article can help. Let’s start by breaking down what “trauma,” and “trauma-informed” mean.

What Exactly is Trauma?

There are many definitions of trauma. The one that resonates with me the most as a coach and trauma survivor is by Dr. Gabor Maté:

"Trauma is not what happens to you... It is what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you."

Think of trauma as the internal echoes of traumatic events, not the events themselves. While anything can cause trauma, common examples of traumatic events include war, natural disaster, physical and sexual abuse, poverty, grief, medical emergencies, racism, and many others.

When we can’t shake off the stress from these events, our bodies hold onto it to keep surviving. This results in a “dysregulated nervous system”. Later, this bottled up energy can show up as physical and emotional “trauma responses”. Common responses include chronic illness, depression, anxiety, addiction, unhealthy habits and so on.

Two people can face the same traumatic event but one can walk away with trauma and the other without. Those with trauma can find it difficult to navigate their daily lives… especially in a world that’s not widely aware of trauma.

What Does it Mean to Be Trauma-informed?

SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, provides a good foundation for what it means to be trauma-informed:

"A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist retraumatization."

In other words, trauma-informed means understanding what trauma is and how it affects us all, spotting signs of it in our communities and using this awareness to shape how things are done to help heal and prevent further harm.

Since 70% of people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life (which could lead to trauma responses like I mentioned above), it’s clear why we’re in dire need of trauma-informed approaches in all aspects of our lives, from medical care to education to our workplaces and beyond.

Trauma-informed Coaching and Therapy

Coaches and their clients work on goals-based, action-oriented outcomes to “maximize [the client’s] personal and professional potential”. This means the work mainly focuses on the present and future state.

In therapy, the work focuses on processing emotions and experiences from the past to improve one’s state in the present.

There are some overlaps and nuances to these general guidelines. For instance, sometimes in coaching, it may be helpful to reference the past to set up better present systems for achieving goals. As for therapy, there’s no problem with a client choosing to work on their future goals with their therapist.

The biggest difference between the two is coaches are not able to diagnose mental illness or “heal trauma”. Coaching is not a replacement for mental healthcare, though it’s a great stand-alone tool or complement to therapy.

In my experience, if a client is dysregulated to the point of not being able to function on a day-to-day basis, therapy may be a better fit for them at the time (and I’m happy to refer them to a trauma-informed therapist I trust). Once their nervous system is more regulated to engage in action-oriented problem-solving, we can resume coaching. At this point they can continue working with me alongside a therapist, or focus solely on coaching.

"Trauma-informed" Does Not Equal Therapy

Another important factor to consider is while many might expect that therapists (and other mental health professionals) are trauma-informed, unfortunately not all are.

Understanding trauma and how it manifests in individuals and societies is not standard education for mental health professionals. In fact, some mental health professionals even consider trauma to be a specialization. This news often comes as a shock to many (and certainly did for me when I was doing my own research about which therapists to work with).

Yet, experiencing trauma is part of being human. So while it would benefit a client for their coach to refer them to a mental health professional, ideally the coach also considers that professional’s ability to work with trauma.

Trauma-informed Coaching: What to Expect

In the coaching industry, it’s common for coaches to challenge and push their clients beyond their comfort zones to facilitate significant life changes. This method can drive great transformation, but it’s not suitable for everyone. Clients with unresolved trauma may find this approach overwhelming, leading to resistance against even positive changes.

This is why it’s so important to work with someone who is skilled at spotting when you might be shutting down, getting overwhelmed or experiencing a flashback; they can use somatic exercises like breathwork or tapping to help you bring your mind and body back to the present moment, rather than simply force you to push past “limiting beliefs”.

Without these trauma-informed tools, coaches can minimize their clients’ experiences, or worse, unknowingly cause retraumatization in their clients.
Enter trauma-informed coaching–it’s like having a guide who gets the rough terrain of how trauma can show up in clients during coaching. Because of this understanding, trauma-informed coaching tends to appeal to people who want to work on trauma recovery with someone who understands the impact of trauma. Not all coaches do.

While it’s common for trauma survivors to seek out trauma-informed coaching, there’s a common misconception that it is only for helping survivors with trauma recovery. In reality, it’s for anyone who wants to create a better future for themselves. In fact, you don’t have to discuss past events, or work on trauma recovery for this type of coaching to be effective. Trauma-informed coaches are like navigators, helping clients chart their course in their lives, careers, relationships, health or businesses without steering them into the stormy waters of past events (aka. retraumatization).

In any transformational work, change can be incredibly uncomfortable and depending on the client’s readiness for it, there may be many opportunities for retraumatization.

As a solution, trauma-informed coaching acknowledges the possibility of unresolved trauma in any individual. It shifts the focus from solely “changing your thoughts” to a more holistic approach that includes tuning into the body’s wisdom. It ensures that the coaching process aligns with the client’s personal needs and boundaries. This creates progress without undue stress.

Finding the Right Fit for You

The coaching world can feel difficult to navigate, with many coaches claiming to be trauma-informed. Why? One thought is many trauma survivors become inspired to take on the title of “trauma-informed coach” because they want to help those who have gone through similar life challenges. But it takes more than just reading a book, having personal traumatic experiences or doing one’s own self-development work to truly be trauma-informed.

While it’s not mandatory to complete a specific certification to title oneself as “trauma-informed”, it takes training and guidance to fully understand what’s necessary to prevent harm during coaching. So if working with someone who is trauma–informed is important to you, a good place to start is to ask about their credentials.

There are a few great certifications available, one example being the Trauma-Informed Certified Coach (TICC) program by Moving the Human Spirit. This program was eye-opening for me, and I incorporate principles from this training in my work every day. Proper training is a responsible path to becoming trauma-informed, and becoming trauma-informed is a responsible thing to do as a coach.

At the same time, I am also a firm believer in our natural ability as humans to help each other regulate, come back to a place of safety, and move forward in the world from this state.

Whether or not a coach or therapist is trauma-informed (by title or certification), what’s most important is that you feel safe when you work with them. Only you can determine what feels safe for you, and it’s only from this state of safety that you can create positive changes in your life.

Safety with someone can feel different for everyone–examples include being able to feel vulnerable and honest, to feel all your feelings while being fully present in the here and now, and to dream big and share your innermost thoughts and emotions without feeling judgment or shame.

So if you’re looking for your next coach or a therapist, have an initial conversation with them and listen to your body. Determine what feelings of safety feel like for you, and see if those feelings come up for you.

Can you see yourself opening up to this person? Can you start to feel like you’re in good hands?

Because we’ve all experienced challenging events collectively and individually, it’s my hope that one day all helpers and healers can be well-versed in trauma. But until then, part of the process of finding the right fit for you is by trusting your intuition and getting in tune with your body as you begin to work with someone.

If a coach or therapist can continually provide the space and relationship you need to work on the goals you define, and can help you regulate and repair when the work gets tough, then you’ve made a great first step in choosing them.

Comments are closed.

Join the Waitlist Below

Become a confident, empowered, abundant freelancer in as little as 2 weeks...

Without the burnout and overwhelm.

The Embodied Freelancer Book

You might also like...