Levels of Exposure to Trauma

When we think of trauma sensitivity, we understand that there reactions to trauma (trauma exposure) at three different levels (1): 

Levels of Exposure

Personal dynamics

Think of who are we as individuals and what’s our own history of trauma/pain. Our own history of trauma may help us identify with the population we are serving and connect in an intimate and knowing way. But it also heightens our vulnerabilities. If we are not careful to separate our own self from another’s experiences, we may increase responsibility to the point we feel anguish in a debilitating way. We can feel an overwhelm or loss of control. 

Organizational tendencies

Trauma exposure responses may manifest in our workplace in both a lack of accountability and unethical behavior.

Societal factors

Numerous forces contribute to the flow of trauma:

  • Social dynamics, struggles, environment, relationships

  • Systematic oppression- systems that perpetuate suffering for certain groups are created and maintained through use of force, authority or societal norms (structural violence) to keep them from satisfying their basic needs. Systemic oppression includes "isms" such as: racism, ethnocentrism, elitism, racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, heterosexism.

  • Lifespans are reduced when people are socially, politically, or economically dominated or exploited.

  • We can see this happen through intergenerational patterns of family violence, racial violence, hate crimes, wars, terrorism, trafficking

The risk of behaviors that may magnify the pain and suffering of direct trauma is always present and can lead us to vicarious trauma.

Shifting attitudes and practices

We can sustain our work with trauma only if we combine our capacity for empathy with a dedication to personal insight and mindfulness (being present) so as to not cause harm but to edify (1).

First, we should have some awareness of what it means to be who we are (gender, race, career, relationships). Then, we can work to nurture workspaces that don’t replicate oppression we experience.

To accomplish lasting repair, we need shifts in attitudes and practices by ourselves, organizations, and infrastructures.


  1. Trauma Stewardship Institute - http://traumastewardship.com/