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Trauma-Informed Conflict Engagement

This module will provide concepts and tools to enable users to: 

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Build awareness of physical and emotional responses to conflict
  • Enhance ability to regulate emotions while engaging in conflict
  • Support healing and restoration during and after conflict
  • Restore hope, trust, and a sense of belonging

Those working in social and political organizations are often familiar with trauma and may have experienced it directly. It is important for those working in communities, leading social movements, or working as organizers or volunteers to build their trauma literacy. They must both understand trauma intellectually and develop a sense of how to work with people who have experienced trauma, whether directly or vicariously as co-workers, volunteers, or in communities. The collective trauma of a nation, a community, a family, a child, or a devastating environmental disaster asks us to show up in the best way we can, in a way that promotes peace and reconciliation, healing, and transformation, and, most importantly, does no additional harm.

Suggestions for those working for social change

  • Seek to ensure that their activities do not cause further traumatization or psychological harm to people already suffering the effects of conflict
  • Recognize the ethical responsibility to ensure they conduct their work in a trauma-sensitive manner
  • May need to adapt, amplify, or even abandon some core tools and approaches when working with a specific group, culture, or community
  • Be aware of hazards associated with classifying people as traumatized, without recognizing that individuals, groups, and communities respond to events and experiences in different ways and within political and social contexts

Note: Not all people who experience trauma have on-going psychological problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an injury resulting from an experience that overwhelms one’s ability to protect oneself and stay safe. The injury can be physical, developmental, emotional, relational, and/or spiritual. Some people heal from the injury and recover healthy functioning. Some people’s  functioning is altered in a manner that persists. Whether and how healthy functioning returns depends on many factors, including (but not limited to) the severity of the experience; age; innate characteristics; support within the environment; previous traumatic experiences; earlier experiences of chronic trauma; and existing levels of resiliency.

Trauma can be primary, secondary, vicarious, and/or generational. For those working in environments where there may be pervasive trauma, those seeking to alleviate the suffering may experience secondary victimization, empathy fatigue, sympathy PTSD, or compassion fatigue.

For adults, traumatic events may shatter the foundations of their beliefs about safety and damage their ability to trust. For children, the developing brains actually organizes around their experiences, especially those experiences which are persistent and repeating. This means that, without support or intervention, the child's brain becomes a traumatized brain, with the trauma experiences shaping or limiting neural development.

Trauma can be caused by

  • Traumatic event(s) – those that are most apt to produce a traumatic response, are out of the ordinary, and are directly experienced as threats to survival and preservation 
  • War, terrorism, genocide
  • Natural disaster
  • Emotional or physical assault
  • Intergenerational and historical traumatic experiences

Signs and Symptoms of Trauma

  • Irritability, sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance
  • Feeling ineffectual, feeling trapped and hopeless
  • Tardiness, absenteeism, irresponsibility
  • Exhaustion and physical illness
  • Conflicts between colleagues, or lack of collaboration
  • Avoidance of working with people with trauma history
  • Lack of flexibility, rigidity, impatience
  • Poor communication
  • Blaming others
  • Disruption in ability to maintain positive sense of self
  • Disruption in ability to manage strong emotions
  • Apathy, detachment and numbing, dealing with Intrusive thoughts

The Brain Matters

The persisting consequences of severe trauma, beyond the physical injuries, can be understood as alterations in the threat appraisal and stress response systems. Changes are expressed across all domains - perception, processing, cognition, reactivity, self-regulation, and behavior.  There may also be changes to the way our brains function, and for each of us, our brain’s functioning is a direct reflection of our experiences.

The brain matters as it develops in a ‘use dependent’ manner. The more a neural system is activated, the more the system changes to reflect the pattern of activation. The brain develops and organizes as a reflection of developmental experience, organizing in response to the pattern, intensity, and nature of sensory and perceptual experience. The more a neural system is activated, the more that system changes to reflect that pattern of activation. This is the basis for development, memory, and learning.

The neural system is activated, i.e. actually forms or grows, through both positive life experiences and traumatic life experiences. Positive life experiences result in a full range and depth of neural development, activating and connecting all areas of the brain in a healthy, fully-functioning manner. Traumatic life experiences often result in limited or negatively adapted neural development, which can then lead to the symptoms of dissociation or hyper-arousal.

Traumatized individuals may respond to threat in two ways - dissociation or hyper-arousal, what we often think of as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ phenomena. When working to address or resolve conflict, it is important to notice if this is happening inside yourself or through your observation of another’s response.

Disassociation (hypo-arousal) is typically characterized as feeling:

  • Detached, suspended in time
  • Numbness, derealization (detachment from one’s surroundings)
  • Compliance (consent to the wishes of others)
  • Mini-Psychosis (losing touch with reality)
  • Decrease in heart rate and respiration

Hyper-arousal is typically characterized as:

  • Reactive, hyper-vigilant (exaggerated intensity of behaviors)
  • Increase in heart rate and respiration
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Anxious

Trauma and PTSD have implications in the peace, social justice, and reconciliation processes, which include processes related to social change and working with traumatized individuals, communities, and systems. Best practice requires people in these fields to create and implement conflict resolution processes that are both sensitive and responsive to trauma and its symptoms. This could include training in recognizing those symptoms, developing comfort in listening and responding so as not to increase trauma, and creating conflict resolution processes inclusive of trauma symptoms and effects.

Individuals, groups, and communities who experience trauma may find it difficult to manage their reactivity to conflict and having a sense of loss of control.  Research shows that when people who have experienced trauma have some control over the outcomes of a process, they are more likely to support the outcomes. The more that individuals involved in political movements and social justice work can become skilled in trauma-informed conflict resolution practices, the more likely that individuals with trauma symptoms will feel included in conflict resolution. Therefore, as social movements become ‘trauma-informed’ in how they do their work, their efforts are more likely to have impactful and sustainable outcomes.   


When social movements and political organizations build their trauma literacy, they are better able to anticipate and prepare, recognize and respond, and help make meaning of the effects of trauma in individuals, groups, communities and systems.

Next Steps

Reflection Questions to Encourage Trauma Literacy

Examine these questions within the context of your own work or a contemporary global issue that relates to your work in social change.

  • What responsibility do we have to understand the effects of trauma in our work?
  • How do we guide our work in light of pervasive trauma?
  • How does our own trauma affect our ways of engaging?
  • Have you noticed the effects of traumatic experiences in yourself during conflict?
  • Have you noticed the effect of traumatic experiences among others during conflict?


Bringing trauma informed practices into social/political organizations

When working with individuals, groups, and communities with a history of trauma, it is important to develop relationships that are safe and trustworthy - relationships where the interactions are attuned, attentive, and respectful.

  • Create environments and relationships where interactions occur should be consistent, predictable, safe, and familiar. Our brains do not like surprises.
  • Develop shared agreements regarding what to do if people get triggered. Avoid re-traumatizing and respect personal boundaries.
  • Avoid pressuring people to ‘tell their story’. Respect each person’s desire and ability to share information. It is not the same as people ‘telling their story’ in their own way and own time.
  • Build in rituals and mind/body somatic experiences.
  • Remove threats, including systemic ones.
  • Be aware of what we, as individuals with our own personal histories, may be bringing into the relationships and spaces. Our own trauma or traumatic experiences, unrecognized and unmanaged, can easily be activated and alter the dynamic in very significant ways.
  • Help build resilience - the sustained ability of communities to withstand, adapt to and recover from adversity - including building resilient communities.
  • Learn trauma-informed conflict management skills.


Robert Gass: Managing your Triggers Toolkit (PDF)

Tammy Lenski: "What Are your Conflict Hooks?" (Article)

The Child Trauma Academy Channel (Video)

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk. Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self while Caring for Others. San Francisco, CA: Berett-Koehler. (2009).

The Karuna Center for Mindful Engagement