Understanding the Psychophysiological Response to Trauma on the Body and Brain

8 tips to consider when something traumatic occurs

By: Myra Strand, MA, CA from Strand Squared Solutions and  Emily Ambrose from Engage Coaching and Consulting

“Wounding and healing are not opposites. They're part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they're alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. ”
― Rachel Naomi Remen


We are always working to provide the best outdoor experiences. We hire and cultivate expert team members, we make sure our equipment is up to code, we provide training to elevate our skillsets and we center on safety for everyone involved. For the most part, we are wildly successful at creating adventures that our communities can cradle in their memories for their entire lives. However, there can be moments of loss and devastation which impact our guests, our staff, and our leadership. Events like natural disaster, victimization, or accidents could cause trauma or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is important to understand what happens to the human body and brain during and after a crisis situation and how to help your community transcend that trauma when it does happen. 

What to look out for:  A definition of a trauma filled incident:

Anytime a person or an organization experiences a time period of intense difficulty or instability, especially when it arrives with little to no warning, could be considered a crisis situation.  Imagine the circumstances around a natural disaster or an accident.  Your team could be on a trip when the weather shifts or someone slips and is seriously injured.  Every person on the trip could walk away with trauma.  There is an ethical responsibility to try to mitigate the known possibility that there could be short and/or long-term negative consequences.

According to SAMSHA[1], individual trauma is an event or circumstance resulting in physical harm, emotional harm, and/or life-threatening harm.  Further, that event or circumstance carries a lasting emotional and/or physical response(s) that adversely affects the individual’s mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and/or spiritual well-being.

What does that translate to in the outdoor community?  The effect of trauma places a heavy burden on individuals, their community (friends/family) and their organization.  While many people who experience a traumatic event will go on with their lives without lasting negative effects, others will have difficulties and experience traumatic stress- which could grow into PTSD - and it cannot be assumed who may be affected differently. When someone we know has experienced something traumatic, we may see a complicated change in their behaviors that could impact the way in which they navigate their lives or their work. 

For example, they may lose confidence and feel like they cannot lead trips effectively; they may self-medicate in order to numb their feelings and find temporary relief; they might self-isolate and miss important organizational functions; they may be triggered by the surroundings or circumstances that are similar to the traumatic event; their personality, world view, or priorities may change; they may develop depression or anxiety; their body may suddenly change... the way people navigate pain and trauma is deeply personal and very individual. 

From a leadership perspective, we want to help our team transcend a traumatic experience because we care about them we don’t want to lose a highly trained team member (especially in this job market).e want to ensure that our team is ready to keep our guests safe in coming trips and we want to decrease liability. Research illustrates that it is possible to transcend trauma, that there are things we can do to provide support in that transcendence process.

Make sure all of your planning is done through a “Trauma Informed” paradigm as it is the current standard of practice.  According to SAMSHA[2], being trauma informed means that the organization realizes the widespread impact of trauma and the potential paths of recovery.  It also recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in client’s families, staff, and others involved in the organization. The organization responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices. And most importantly, the organization actively resists re-traumatization. The organization does this by embracing the following principles: Safety, Trustworthiness and Transparency, Peer Support, Collaboration and Mutuality, Empowerment, Voice, and Choice, Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues or Applied Intersectionality (July, 2014).  

While many responders are focused on also integrating a human centric perspective while centering on healing.   The current conversation asserts that we should stand on a trauma informed foundation while centering on creating a space for healing and post traumatic growth. 

Transcending Trauma: 8 Tips to Consider

  1. Learn more about being trauma-informed, what happens to the brain and body during and after a crisis (because that knowledge changes practice), what it means to help someone heal or to reach post-traumatic growth and applied intersectionality.

  2. Plan for the worst; expect the best. This may be the most important step.  It is essential, that during a time of healthy stability, that organizations run a thorough crisis audit to explore how to respond to: Natural disaster, accidents, sexual harassment or sexual assault, workplace discrimination, a death of team member. This requires thought and preparation to be deployed immediately when necessary. Are you ready? 

  3. Policies, procedures, protocols, and practices:  Take a look at your policies and procedures manual through a trauma informed lens and update.  Do you center on the humans who occupy your space?  Do the volunteers, staff and leaders have systemic protections that support their holistic health?

  4. Respond swiftly:  When something traumatic happens, do not delay.  Research illustrates that the sooner humans receive a trauma informed, healing centered response the higher their chance of transcending that trauma becomes.  This is preferable to watching someone sink into PTSD. One way to respond swiftly is through Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD). CISD is a highly specific, structured crisis intervention to reduce traumatic stress, increase coping, and facilitate group solidarity among people who have experienced the same trauma together.  This is done with a professional facilitator.

  5. Not sure?  Check anyway: When a feeling of panic sets in, many people cannot tell if they are experiencing trauma or if it will simply blow over with no lasting effect. When in doubt, aim for intervention.  Engaging a trauma informed therapist, taking time off to reflect and heal, and/or running through a mental checklist to check for impact may be useful.  It is better to be safe than sorry.

  6. Think beyond the obvious:  Sexual Harassment and Discrimination could be highly traumatizing because they make up a hostile work environment and threaten a person’s core value and integrity.

  7. Make a plan, with details: The more you feel confident to address traumatic experiences, the more that will be felt and communicated by your employees and stakeholders. Can you answer the questions: What, when, and to whom do you communicate, and under what circumstances? What support mechanisms do you have in place? What may be applicable reporting or legal considerations? Do you have a budget set aside for this?

  8. Schedule time: Now. Right now. Look at your calendar - during the next week, month, season. When will you set aside time to review this article? Make a plan? Convene your managers? Look at your budget? It may not be the “fun” stuff - and we are confident you will not regret pre-planning for these situations we know happen.

Fred Rogers said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’’.  This carries so much wisdom!  The human experience is wrought with trauma and pain; it can also be full of the healing and reaching post traumatic growth.  If you need help, we are here for you. 

About the Authors:

Emily Ambrose (she/hers) has been working with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations to reach their potential for over a decade. Her work has been in training and development, communication, diversity education, relationship dynamics, and leadership. Learn more at https://emilyambrose.com/.

Myra Strand is the owner of Strand Squared Solutions, providing training and technical assistance for individuals, agencies and/or organizations that serve people who have experienced a crisis incident, something traumatic and/or crime victimization. Learn more at www.strandsquared.com.



[1] SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). 2023. Trauma and Violence. www.samhsa.gov. Retrieved Jan. 23, 2023.

[2] SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). 2014. SAMSHA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach.  HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Note: The above photo shows a waterfall on Havasupai Reservation near Grand Canyon; photo credit Benji Xi via AP News, 2018 

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