Trauma is not just an individual tragedy—it is rooted in larger social systems that shape our lives. When we peel back the layers of a traumatic experience, we find that they’re bound up within a larger social context. Whether it’s violence someone experienced because of their gender, or the dangerous work someone took on because they were poor, trauma never takes place in a vacuum.
Anyone who is adopting a trauma-informed practice will benefit from knowing this. Whether we’re a meditation or yoga teacher, or healing practitioner, becoming a trauma-sensitive professional requires more than adopting traditional therapeutic skills: It asks us to recognize the ways trauma connects to the world around us.
Traumatic events happen in a social context that privileges some while targeting others, and knowing this can help build safety and trust, and help us support people that we’re working with.
Social Groups Give Social Context
All of us belong to groups. Some of these groups are ones we choose, such as a group of friends or people who share an interest. Other groups are those that are assigned to us, such as the generation we were born into—baby boomers or millennials, for instance. Whether we identify with these groups or not, they inform our identities.
The interconnected web of identities we carry can be thought of as our social context—a particular set of factors that influence our lives in any given situation. Social context includes one’s social identity (age, gender, race, ethnicity, class backgrounds, sexual identity, dis/ability, or religion), locale (a city, a town, a suburb), peers, community, and country of residence.
To understand our social context, we need to consider how social groups function, why they matter, and how they relate to trauma.
Some Groups Have a Higher Risk of Trauma
Certain social groups have more power, access, and privilege than others. In the United States, for instance, women are paid 78% of what men make for doing the same job—a percentage that hasn’t changed in over a decade. This pay gap also varies significantly by race: African-American women make 63% of white men’s wages, and Hispanic and Latina women make 54%. This means that it takes women of color 7 to 8 extra months to be paid what the average white man makes per calendar year.
It goes without saying that trauma can affect anyone, regardless of what groups they belong to. But research tells us that people in marginalized social groups face conditions that make them more vulnerable to experiencing traumatic events. American families living in urban poverty have been shown to experience higher levels of exposure to trauma, and people who identify as transgender were found to be 28% more likely to experience physical violence then those who considered themselves gender normative.
While traumatic events can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time, social context will always be a component.
Creating a Sense of Safety Through Awareness
Understanding social context enables us to attune more accurately and skillfully to our clients and students–something that helps establish safety, which is key to trauma-sensitive practice. Unless people feel some degree of safety, it becomes extremely difficult to self-regulate and stay self-regulated. If a client or student is spending their time and energy concerned with self-protection instead of self-awareness, focusing one’s attention becomes next to impossible.
To establish safety people need to feel trust in those guiding them—a visceral sense that they’ll be seen, cared for, and understood for the complex people they are.
One way we can generate this kind of trust is to preemptively establish a basic understanding of another person’s world—including the social conditions they are shaped and impacted by. This involves developing a greater awareness of social context and how privilege, oppression, and power get played out. By ensuring we’re attuned to the social identity that someone carries—and considering how those identities might interact with ours—we can adjust our interventions to try to effectively meet the needs of the person we’re working with.
This isn’t a static process, but a dynamic one, asking us to listen to others and be in continual self-reflection about how social context is shaping interactions we’re having. If we are not doing this, it becomes easy to unintentionally reinforce racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive dynamics that are connected to the proliferation of trauma—not just for our students or clients, but in our communities, cities, countries, and world.
Adapted from Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing by David Treleaven. Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. Used with permission.