Why trauma needs safe environments

Why trauma needs safe environments 150 150 Jane Evans


As a therapist, counsellor, teacher, support worker, early years practitioner or however you are working with children, young people or adults its often about having conversations. Sometimes you might be doing one to one support work with them. Other times it might be a quick word following an incident or because they need your steadying, reassuring presence. So how much consideration should you give to where you have these conversations? Do you even have the luxury of choosing?

Maybe you don’t have a specific space, I know in the schools I’ve gone into over the years to do individual sessions with children and young people we often didn’t have the same room and frequently someone needed to come into to get something from a cupboard! At other times with adults I had to meet in cafes, pubs, refuges, rooms where I worked and fast food restaurants.

Now I wouldn’t do that as I have learned, particularly from the work of Stephen Porges and his polyvagal theory, that unless the physical environment feels safe then no child, young person or adult can really engage in what’s being said, or done, in terms of a therapeutic experience. They may still turn up every week as you are a calm, kind presence for them but we owe it to them to be more fastidious about the spaces we see them in. 

A very BIG lesson about the tiny details of trauma

With their full permission, a client I’ve been working with over the last few months, has allowed me to share the profound lesson they gave me about how small changes in the environment can be deeply triggering. It happened during a session in my new home where I’m still fiddling about with all my bits n bobs, moving some around, tweaking angles etc. 

I have a particular object that is a seed pod and can hold essential oils. In fact I have 2 of them brought back from Australia for me. My client had previously been curious about one of them and nicknamed it the christmas pudding. On this day, we began our work together, they have been in my new home before and it had gone OK but since then I had moved things slightly. On this day, right away something didn’t feel right.

Nowadays, I automatically tune into my client’s energetic, autonomic state. I could feel it dropping in and out and was struggling to hold a space for our conversation and explorations. At the same time I was concerned to point this out, as I do with clients if it energetically feels OK to. But in this instance it didn’t feel right somehow. I had a sense my client would hear it as a form of criticism and I was worried this might trigger their sense of shame. 

Three quarters of the way into our session. My client looked my square in the face and said, 

“Where’s the christmas pudding? It’s been bothering me the whole time I’ve been here!”

I instantly knew what they meant and went to get the one I could see across the room, and then noticed the other on the stairs. I paused. Held them out, “Which one?” I knew it was the one in my right hand as I could sense it.

“It should be on the bookshelf,” they said. I placed it there and then was directed millimetre by millimetre to get it in exactly the right position and angle. 

“Phew, now I can relax. I haven’t felt safe the whole time I’ve been here as it’s always been on the shelf in your old house. I have spent the session feeling I couldn’t trust you like when we first met. Totally on edge and wanting to leave!”

“How do you feel now?” I tentatively asked. “Fine now the pudding is back where it should be” they said. I then shared how I’d sensed the big energy changes in them but had feared I’d do more harm by mentioning it. We explored why something so small could be so significant in terms of creating safety and trust. Linking it to their childhood where home had never been physically or emotionally felt, or been safe at any moment. 

Lasting lessons

There was real learning for us both. I was totally blown away to have this experience. Sorry of course I had accidentally created it for my courageous client, but oh so grateful to go through it together. Talk about affirmation of what I know and study when it comes to the vital need to create safe spaces! 

I hope you are able to carry this into your work. It isn’t always possible to make spaces exactly as we need but where possible try to:

Have the same objects in the same places

Ensure there are no surprising, unfamiliar sounds outside of the room 

Look and smell familiar yourself

Keep chairs, cushions, pictures, where you put your drinks, tissues etc the same

Use the same style of glasses to drink from 

When you can’t, if you know in advance let them know beforehand. Then they have the option to rearrange a session, or at least know about the changes. Take time always to settle them into the space. Some breathing might help. Talking about something they like, such as their pets or other interests. 

Most importantly, always ensure you are super grounded and able to sense when you are losing your inner safety within a session so you can adjust your energy. I managed to find a reason to sit on the floor, which I did intentionally as I could tell I was reacting to my clients lack of safety.

Our job is always to create a safe space and a safe relational experience within it. When we can’t, we need to have a plan b. and c. that we are grounded enough adapt in the moment. I can never ever thank my client enough for this rich learning and for trusting me enough to say. “Where’s the christmas pudding?”


Jane Evans

Jane is a ‘learn the hard way’ person. She has learnt from her personal experiences and her direct work with people who have often been in really bad places emotionally, relationally, practically and sometimes professionally.

All stories by: Jane Evans

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