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Don’t Just “Believe Survivors.” Understand Survival.

By Evy Yeager

After enduring a traumatic experience, there are as many ways to move forward as there are people. But nearly every path to legal justice relies heavily on the survivor’s storytelling, and even more on how people respond to it. As a society and even in our justice system, we hold the wildly unrealistic expectation that people who have experienced trauma will still think and act like an untraumatized person: that we will recall memories, make decisions, and interact with others the same as before. But a fundamental feature of trauma is that our brains and bodies start operating differently. After trauma, our behavior reflects a new focus on survival because we had to survive something

Understanding more about what trauma and recovery look like can be empowering for survivors, and is an essential practice for successful advocates. Accessibility of trauma education is key for both groups. Too much of the available information on trauma is buried in clinical language that puts a barrier between practical knowledge and the people who need it. Inspired by NYLAG’s #IamCredible campaign, I put together this guide for survivors and advocates alike. Here’s a plain-language breakdown of a few concepts that helped me understand my own experience as a trauma survivor, and helped me connect with people as an advocate. 

Trauma is an event or environment that changes the way we understand our safety and social identity, and has lasting effects on our brains, bodies, and behavior. Traumatic experiences set off an instinctive response. We do not “decide” how to respond to trauma, in the same way we do not “decide” to pull our hands away when we accidentally touch a hot pan. 

What makes an experience traumatic, and not just challenging or painful, is that our brains and bodies process it as literally life-threatening. This holds true, even if the trauma itself did not involve physical danger. For example, a parent’s incarceration or illness might not directly influence a child’s access to food, shelter or caregiving, but the experience can still be so destabilizing that it activates survival instincts. 

Dysregulation is the shift in our nervous system that happens when we sense overwhelming danger, and our instinct to survive takes over. After experiencing trauma, our brains and bodies are extra sensitive to signs of danger. Sensory reminders (sights, sounds, smells) or familiar emotions from the traumatic experience can send us back into a survival state, even if the danger is not really there. For example, if you’ve had an abusive partner who yells when they’re angry, other loud noises (music, sirens, applause) might cause a reaction in your body (hands shaking or heart pounding) as if someone was yelling at you, even if you know that you are safe (“It’s just the TV, why do I feel so nervous?”) This disconnect between our thoughts and our physical reactions can leave room for self-doubt and self-blame “I’m safe now, but I still can’t focus at work or get any sleep. Something’s wrong with me.” even though these responses are both normal and out of our control. 

Grounding is an activity that helps our nervous system return to regular functioning, not survival. When we become dysregulated, the quickest way to become regulated again is to use our five senses to signal to the brain that there’s nothing dangerous here. Focusing on a sound, smell, sight, taste, or touch that’s comforting to us can reinforce a physical, emotional, and mental sense of safety. Though it might seem ridiculous to just smell something nice when we’re having a reaction that feels so extreme, connecting with some form of positive sensory thing helps to turn off the smoke alarm in our nervous system. It tells our brains, “Nevermind, nothing’s on fire, it’s just toast.” It’s important to understand that the sensory thing we choose will not make us feel suddenly fine, but it turns the dial down on whatever we’re experiencing. Regulating our nervous system means we are more able to think clearly, make informed decisions, and feel present in the moment. Advocates can offer to support their clients by doing a grounding activity together, but some survivors might prefer to use grounding only as a personal practice. 

Hyperarousal is the body’s way of staying safe by spending its energy on detecting danger. During hyperarousal, we are constantly monitoring our environment and emotions. Our brains are searching for familiar red flags of our past trauma. Because we are making constant connections between the danger we sense and an overwhelming urge to act on it, our behaviors may seem overreactive, paranoid, dramatic, or just generally unnecessary. But actually this is a natural process our brains use to reestablish our sense of safety and stability. 

For example, a survivor might be struggling to review testimony with their advocate, because something in the room is causing dysregulation. If the client is having trouble focusing, the advocate can help their client to eliminate sensory problems, or identify what would ease the struggle. Using nonjudgmental language will help the client feel comfortable enough to ask for what they need. Instead of, “You seem really distracted. I’ll leave you here for a minute to get yourself together,” try “It’s kind of hot/crowded/noisy in here, isn’t it? Should we move somewhere else?” or “I know this is a lot at once. What can I do to make it a little easier?” 

Hypoarousal is the body’s way of staying safe by spending its energy shutting off our responses to danger, and letting the body rest. During hypoarousal, we do not react in self-protective ways because our brains are blocking the connection between danger and the urge to do something to avoid it. Our behaviors may read like laziness, recklessness, refusal to help ourselves, or a callous attitude. But just like hyperarousal, this is a normal trauma response. Over time, our bodies relearn what makes us feel safe or not safe, and we can stay out of these extremes. 

The #IamCredible campaign challenges advocates to reframe how we think of trauma survivors’ credibility. This is critical work, because affirming and supportive relationships are a key factor in how trauma affects us, and how quickly we are able to recover. But I challenge you to take it a step further — don’t just believe survivors. Try a little harder to understand what survival really looks like. 

Evy Yeager is an educator, advocate, and the founder of TraumaRoot.

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