No matter what model you use, SAMHSA or Sanctuary, safety is a core value of trauma-informed care. Safety is arguably one of the most important pillars (if not THE most important pillar) of shifting towards a trauma informed approach. Here’s why.
This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about the importance of safety at work, and it won’t be the last! Trauma-informed change is centered on the concept of trauma healing, and safety is crucial to healing. Actually, that might be an understatement.
Safety is the cornerstone upon which the entire structure of trauma-informed care is built. Without safety, we cannot access the other vital components of trauma-informed change, such as trust, accountability, DEIB and social justice, community building, authenticity, and more.
Safety opens the door for honest, deep, and powerful conversations where we can access our executive functioning (where logic and reason reside). When we are disconnected from our executive functioning skills, we struggle with impulsivity, reactivity, emotional dysregulation, brain fog, memory issues, and cognitive distortions.
Safety creates spaces where we can be grounded, mindful, and intentional in our healing journey.
Without safety, we are stuck in our trauma. With safety, we gain clarity on the path forward.
To fully participate in this conversation, understanding how safety is defined within a trauma informed approach is critical.
Safety is more than just physical safety; it also encompasses emotional, psychological, and social safety. But that’s not all.
I encourage you to take a short moment to consider what does safety mean to me? What does your safe place look like? Who is there? How does it feel?
Safety is a state or condition where something or someone is free from danger or violence.
Violence is an action (or collection of actions) that injure, abuse, damage, or destroy something.
Danger is the threat of violence. The something in question could a physical body. It could also be a relationship, a career, a culture, a dream, a person’s autonomy, or anything else.
Violence is inseparable from the idea of destruction. When there is violence (which could be yelling, passive aggression, lack of follow-through, or lack of accountability), there is destruction. And with that destruction often comes a feeling of loss.
If you’ve been with our community for some time, you know that we place an emphasis on feelings, especially loss, and repair work. Why do we do this? Because this is how we create safety.
Think of some of the other trauma informed values we live and breathe. Vulnerability. Authenticity. Trust. Communication. Equity. Inclusion. Non-judgment. Diversity. All roads lead to safety.
Safety is an essential step in the healing process.
Safety Creates Space for Trauma Healing
There’s no quick-fix solution to heal from trauma. It involves exploring and addressing deep wounds and allowing the pain of those wounds to resurface. Our bodies and minds will often refuse—sometimes against our conscious will—to let that pain flow through us.
To engage with healing, we must feel safe first. Safety is the key that unlocks the door to self-discovery and personal growth.
Without safety, “trauma-informed” interventions can be violent and re-traumatizing. This is part of why trauma-informed change is a slow but consistent journey. If you jump in too quickly, you could do more harm than healing.
Identifying a Lack of Safety
Just because we say “this is a safe space,” doesn’t make it a safe space. Becoming sensitive to what creates and what disrupts safety is a skill that is honed through intentional practice.
Take a moment to consider some things that disrupt your sense of safety. Here are common disruptors of safety that I’ve heard from training participants or experienced myself:
structural violence, including discrimination, harassment, and microaggressions
lying, betrayal, or lack of trust
unexpected loud noises or surprises
uncertainty, unpredictability, and unclear expectations
passive aggression, unspoken issues
lack of communication, having to “guess”
While we can also think of safety disruptors as triggers, it’s important to acknowledge that in a safe space where we are growing through trauma-informed change, it is inevitable that we will feel triggered. Let’s think that through: if you are doing the work, you will be triggered in safe spaces.
Trauma-informed safe spaces are not trigger-free. Why?
For most people, talking and thinking about our trauma is triggering. Certain feelings that come up may be triggering. Even speaking to and connecting with people can be triggering. Being vulnerable can be triggering. Talking about racism and other forms of structural violence is particularly triggering for many people for many reasons.
And there’s the catch. If you’re doing trauma-informed work, you’re talking about trauma. You’re getting triggered. You’re grounding and accessing your executive functioning (which can only happen with safety). And you’re diving back into the difficult conversations and emotional labor of working through all of it.
What Safety is Not
In defining what safety is, we also have to clarify what safety is not. Safety is not comfort. Safety is not tip-toeing around an issue because you’re afraid of “saying it wrong.” Safety is not hiding your truth because you’re scared it will hurt someone else.
Safety is being able to show up fully, even when that means showcasing our embarrassing or harmful beliefs about the world.
Safety creates space where vulnerability is possible. Yet vulnerability also means that we open ourselves up to hurting ourselves and others. Safety gives us the power to navigate that in community with one another. With safety, we can face the truth that we are hurt or that we hurt someone else, we can embrace accountability, and we can repair.
Consider this question: what can you do to create safety? If I asked a group of facilitators, I might hear them say provide trigger warnings, tell participants they can take breaks as needed, or use safety tools like X, N, and O cards.
Yes. Yes. And yes! Those are great actionable technical solutions for creating safety.
I’d like to challenge us further and ask what cultural changes could you make? This question is a bit more difficult to answer. That’s part of why we tend to avoid it.
Here are some examples of self-focused cultural changes:
Improve my emotional regulation so I don’t take my anger out on my colleagues
Practice kind and direct communication at work
Hone my trauma-informed coaching skills of curiosity and non-judgment through asking powerful questions
Become a better active listener by bearing through my discomfort with silence
Now you see the other reason we tend to avoid thinking about cultural changes. It’s a lot harder. And, change is slower and more laborious. These kinds of changes happen over a longer period of time.
You’re not going to create safety by starting a new program or launching a new initiative. A new process won’t make you trauma-informed. A training event or hiring audit might ensure DEI compliance at your office, but it’s not going to make a sustainable shift toward equity unless your culture changes, too.
Final Thoughts on Safety at Work
Yes, safety is just one element of the trauma informed approach—and it’s an important foundation that the framework is built upon. Because without safety, all other aspects of trauma-informed care, such as trust, accountability, DEI/social justice, community building, and authenticity, remain out of reach.
And, because trauma-informed change is endlessly complex and intricate, these other aspects of trauma-informed care help establish safety. This work is cyclical, comprised of many interconnected feedback loops.
Safety allows us to access our executive functioning, stay grounded, be mindful, and intentionally heal. Without safety, our brains tell us we are in danger, and we become trapped in trauma brain, stuck in reenactments, defined by helplessness and hopelessness.
So, let's work towards creating more safety in our lives. What is one thing you can do to prioritize safety in your life?
Take a moment to reflect. If you’re unsure, creating a safety plan is always a great place to start. I would also urge you to focus on building and strengthening your community, which will look different for everyone.
Also, a gentle reminder that we offer free community networking for people interested in the trauma informed approach. We host these events on the second Monday of each month. Hope to see you there!