What is Sanctuary Trauma?

I have been trying to be better at practicing gratitude over the past few weeks, spending some time before I go to bed thinking through events of the days past and naming people and experiences I am grateful for. It seems like a better way to spend time then scrolling through my phone to catch up on the news.

One of the events that recently came to mind was a memory of a discussion with a group of about 20 participants who went through our TIC Advanced Training Series. I remembered the feel of the group as we discussed sanctuary trauma – a mix of curiosity, novelty and a sense of the power of the concept. It was one of those great training moments: a timely, resonant concept, well received by the group. It made me smile, and I felt grateful to have been part of that discussion.

That concept, sanctuary trauma, keeps resurfacing for me as I think about the struggles of 2020. Sanctuary trauma has been written about extensively by Sandra Bloom, MD and serves as the foundation for the Sanctuary Model. It has been described as that which “occurs when an individual who suffered a severe stressor next encounters what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment,” but discovers only more trauma (Bloom, Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, 2013).

It is a special kind of hurt to be suffering, holding out hope that help may come, having a belief that certain people and systems will help and then receiving indifference, bureaucratic apathy, or sometimes additional hurt.

Think of hurt kids looking for hope from staff by being asked about their adverse experiences (and the influence of those experiences on how they are navigating the world). Imagine how it might feel to have that expectation and then never get asked because staff ”shouldn’t ask questions they aren’t prepared to respond to.”

Think of a patient meeting with their physician and deciding not to share their story of abuse because they can tell their physician doesn’t have time in their jam-packed schedule.

Finally, think of a parent hearing about or witnessing their child being harmed and deciding not to disclose what they saw or heard.

Now, imagine the same person experiencing all three of these things in their lifetime:
  • How many people have a set of experiences like these?
  • How do we honor those unique dynamics?
  • How do we create a sense of hope?
  • How does it affect the trust people have in systems, especially those designed and structure to protect them?
If these or other questions pique your interest, I invite you to join us as we discuss this concept and more as we begin the next Advanced TIC Series. Sign up for a single session, the entire series, or something in between. I hope to see you soon!

This article was originally posted in SaintA’s Trauma Informed Care Newsletter. Sign up to receive the next issue directly in your inbox!


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