We often think of trauma in terms of the big, obvious and jarring experiences such as war, natural disasters or acts of violence that can result in conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, modern psychology has given us a much richer and more nuanced understanding of trauma. Trauma is not a static list of experiences, but instead, it’s how our brain processes—or, more accurately, doesn't process—our life experiences.
Trauma is anything that overwhelms our coping mechanisms. Normally, when we're stressed, our body goes through a physiological process where the threat—be it physical or mental—is handled and the body returns to homeostasis.
When that system is overwhelmed, whether by one very intense experience or by 1,000 tiny stresses accumulating, that is considered trauma. So, things like an unpredictable childhood home, poverty, racism, homophobia, medical discrimination or the loss of a loved one can also be profoundly traumatic and leave long-standing emotional scars. As our understanding of the prevalence and consequences of trauma grows, we also continue to learn more about its long-term impacts on our physical bodies and health.
With 70% of U.S. adults experiencing a traumatic event in their lifetimes, personal trainers must have a basic understanding of trauma and how to coach these clients in a way that does not worsen their symptoms.
According to the National Council on Behavioral Health, trauma often manifests physically as a host of symptoms, including body aches, headaches, being easily startled, insomnia, anxiety, depression and increased consumption of drugs, alcohol and food. If left unsupported, trauma can present a significant barrier to clients reaching their health and fitness goals.
What is Trauma-informed Personal Training?
According to the International Institute for Complementary Therapists, you can think of the trauma education framework as a continuum that can be applied to any allied health or teaching profession, which includes becoming:
All aspects of the spectrum require you to meet your client with empathy, compassion and non-judgment, but each level is more involved than the last.
Trauma awareness simply means you see and recognize that your client is experiencing symptoms of trauma distress, and you empathize with them. While you don't engage in harmful toxic positivity—such as trying to find a “silver lining” to their current situation—you don't try to help them negotiate the experience, either.
To be trauma-informed means you've developed and integrated a deeper understanding of the physiology and psychology of trauma and have woven that knowledge into your practice as a personal trainer. A trauma-informed personal trainer seeks to partner with their client, may recognize some of the physical manifestations of trauma, and acknowledges the client as the expert on their own body.
Consent is another tenet of trauma-informed personal training. For example, always discuss ahead of time how you plan on instructing your clients when it comes to physical touch and receive their consent to do so.
Your client may not feel comfortable being touched, and a trauma-informed trainer would respect that boundary and adapt their teaching style accordingly.
Lastly, to be trauma-qualified means that you have received formal instruction and can help clients process trauma safely. Trauma-qualified professionals typically hold advanced degrees and work as mental health providers and therapists. This is beyond the scope of practice of a personal trainer, so be mindful of straying from your scope whenever you discuss trauma with a client.
Because of the prevalence of trauma and its profound impact on health, personal trainers can strive to provide, trauma-informed personal training. But what does that look like in practice?
Trauma-informed Training in Action: Key Tenets of Trauma-informed Training
Empathy: At its core, trauma-informed training is about empathizing with people and understanding that their behaviors may have roots in trauma. With that understanding, we can help clients feel safe and find healing through movement.
Non-judgment: Trauma-informed training requires that you to interpret client behavior non-judgmentally and instead get curious about what's happening. Watching someone act against their self-interest or stated desires can be confusing, but a trauma-informed trainer knows that trauma is visceral, and that our reactions to it are often unconscious. So, missed workouts or eating to excess should be viewed as possible symptoms that could be linked to distress, not a lack of willpower.
Partnership: Because you are now meeting your client with empathy and non-judgment, you can recognize your client as the expert regarding their body and acknowledge that you must be flexible to help clients process trauma. This may look like tweaking the program to include a gentler, lower-intensity version of what you had planned, or throwing the plan out entirely and opting for a walk outside instead.
Client Autonomy: Most importantly, trauma-informed training is founded on the principle of client autonomy. Many trauma victims have had their physical freedom stripped from them or have had traumatizing experiences with movement. So, ensure your client can count on transparency around their workout and has the ability to speak up if they're not feeling up to something. This is crucial in building their agency and helping them feel safe in the gym and with you.
2 Ways to Be More Trauma-informed
Educate Yourself on Trauma
Trauma is a complex, evolving topic. Read up on the physiology and psychology of trauma to better understand when your clients are showing signs of trauma and how you can coach them in a way that isn't retraumatizing.
These books are a great place to start:
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time by Laura Khoudari
The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment by Babette Rothschild, MSW
Develop Your Referral Network
As personal trainers, it is never our job to diagnose someone as having trauma, but we have a unique opportunity to support our clients with movement. There will be times, however, when you know your client needs more specialized services, so it's essential that you have a referral network in place to help connect them with the resources they need.
For mental health referrals, check out the American Psychological Association Psychologist Locator. Also, check out these ACE continuing education courses and certifications to expand your coaching skill set and knowledge base. Learn how to develop inclusive yoga classes, dive deeper into your client’s holistic health as an ACE Health Coach or take a continuing education course on Fitness for Healing: Trauma-informed Approaches (worth 0.1 ACE CEC).