Trauma-Informed Organization: Trauma and Control

Posted on March 31, 2022

Control. We all want it! There’s a sense of safety and security when we can be sure of what to expect and what outcomes will be.

What about things that impact us that we cannot control such as the actions of others, the price of gas, the weather tomorrow or a global pandemic?! Often during times of increased stress the human response is to try to gain even more control. So let’s get into the biological reason for this and see what this might look like for someone who has experienced trauma.

We’ve all seen the memes like this:

Seems pretty straightforward, right? I can control my actions, my effort, my response to situations, etc.

But can I, really? What if I’ve experienced trauma? What if I haven’t yet learned how to master my emotions? What if I don’t know how to ask for help? Memes like this assume the observer is regulated (and knows HOW to regulate), has awareness of their thoughts and feelings, and can maintain insight and understanding during times of stress so they can learn and adapt to their environment.

Let’s look at the biology. Deep inside the brain is the limbic system. You can see in the diagram how it’s connected to the brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain. Our brain stem and limbic system are focused on one thing–survival.

For those who have experienced trauma, being triggered causes the limbic system of the brain to hijack the thinking/learning part of the brain (cortex). When that happens, reason and rationality are lost. A brain in survival mode is focused on controlling what it can: staying alive at whatever cost.

Even without trauma all of us can get hijacked by this part of our brain. Lack of sleep, increased worry, grief and any additional stressors can tap our reserves. Our brain reverts to our limbic system and with it comes the increased need for control.

This is why you’ll hear trauma therapists talk about repetition and practicing regulation skills during times of calm—NOT during times of stress. Practicing skills repeatedly offers the individual a better chance, when hijacked, of being able to pull from practiced skill sets to begin to self-regulate.

While all humans experience stress, not all people experience stressful events in the same way. My trauma history, how safe I feel in my current environment, how much sleep I got the night before, my level of hunger…all of these things and more can impact how I will respond. This is also the reason the same person can respond differently to similar stressors at different times! Even when we THINK we’ve mastered regulation, our current state can make it so that we cannot recall and use those skills.

So why is this important? This knowledge helps build empathy and understanding for clients, co-workers, family, friends and even ourselves! It also helps us accept that all of us are doing the best we can at any given moment in time. Does this excuse harmful choices? No. Does this excuse hurtful behavior? Absolutely not. It does offer empathy and the perspective that people are capable of learning, growing and adapting. A shift towards this way of thinking is something we ALL have control over.

Did you know?

The Helpline Center has resources you can download for Rapid City Basic and Emergency Needs, the Northern and Southern Hills, a Black Hills Behavioral Health Guide, and a Rapid City Food Calendar. Click here to learn more and download: (All located under “Black Hills Area”).