Trauma and trauma-informed researchers


Emilie Smeaton has over 20 years experience as a social researcher. Many of the research participants Emilie has worked with have experienced trauma through abuse and she has worked with a range of organisations to further understanding of trauma and trauma-informed practice.  In this post, Emilie distills key messages for social researchers from literature on trauma and ‘trauma-informed practice’ - in terms of both working with research participants and managing researchers’ responses to trauma. 

Social research can directly focus upon traumatic experiences and events or upon issues that are not knowingly addressing trauma but include research participants who have experienced trauma. Social researchers are, through the research process, likely to have contact with survivors of trauma. 

A lack of understanding of trauma, and that certain behaviours and/or responses can be an attempt to cope with trauma, can lead to a misunderstanding of individuals, their actions and reactions. A failure to work in a trauma-informed way can inadvertently lead to re-traumatisation of a trauma survivor or vicarious trauma in the researcher. This points to the importance of trauma-informed researchers who do not have to be experts in trauma but are able to look through the lens of trauma and implement trauma-informed practice in interactions with research participants. 


Trauma results from an actual or perceived threat to life or physical and/or psychological integrity that overwhelms an individual’s coping mechanisms. Trauma has ‘lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being’ (SAMHSA 2014, 7)1 and violates physical and emotional safety. Trauma imprints upon an individual’s brain, mind and body, negatively affecting how individuals view themselves and the world around them (Van Der Kolk 2015)2

The traumatic incident may be a single incident or traumatic experiences can be numerous and take place over extended periods of time. Traumatic events include: 

  • violent assault 
  • robbery 
  • kidnapping  
  • sexual violence
  • all forms of child abuse 
  • torture 
  • violent death of a significant other 
  • accidents including fire, war and natural disasters 

Something that is traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for another.  The impact of a potentially traumatic event is determined by the objective nature of an event and an individual’s subjective response to the event. 

While trauma can present differently in individuals, common presentations of trauma include: 

  • talking about intense or harmful experiences with no feeling
  • showing no emotion
  • appearing disinterested
  • lacking in concentration 
  • appearing anxious
  • being restless
  • being on edge
  • anger 

Trauma can be triggered by sound, smell, visuals, taste, physical sensations, significant dates, stressful events, behaviours, thoughts and unexpected situations.

Vicarious trauma

Social researchers are often required to build trust and empathy with research participants to allow them to feel safe and able to share their experiences and views. When undertaking research, social researchers may hear numerous accounts of traumatic experiences and witness the emotional response of trauma survivors. This can have an impact upon researchers and their work. Vicarious trauma takes place in the self as a result of empathic engagement with traumatised individuals and reports of their traumatic experiences. Writing about the impact upon therapists of exposure to their client’s trauma, Perlman and Maclan described how vicarious trauma can be defined as ‘the negative effects of caring about and caring for others’ (Perlman and Maclan 1995. 31)3. Symptoms of vicarious trauma include: 

  • increased absenteeism
  • increased illness or fatigue
  • reduced motivation
  • lowered self-esteem and sense of work competence
  • loss of sense of control over work and life in general
  • difficulties with boundaries
  • reduced productivity 

Researchers can prevent and manage vicarious trauma through self-care and self-protection by: 

  •  ensuring a balance between work, rest and socialising with family and friends
  •  transforming negative aspects of work into connection by creating meaning in activities and challenging negative beliefs
  • participating in building communities with others (Saakvitne et al 2000)4

Trippany et al (2004)5 recommends promoting personal tolerance by connecting to emotions through journal writing, emotional support from others and personal counselling. 

At the organisational level, social research organisations and institutions can promote a culture of safety, empowerment, transparency and choice. Ensuring  supportive working environments should both reduce the risk of re-traumatisation for trauma survivors and prevent vicarious trauma in researchers. Social research institutions and organisations can also provide  training about trauma and trauma-informed practice to equip researchers to look through the lens of trauma in their work and to be able to provide quality supervision to other researchers. Van Der Werwe and Hunt (2019)6 highlight the importance of ethics policies including provision for the care of trauma researchers and regular supervision alongside debriefing by a trauma therapist. 

Trauma-informed practice

Trauma-informed practice recognises that individual’s responses are a way of adapting and coping with symptoms of trauma. It requires understanding of the effects of trauma, recognising trauma triggers and trauma responses and integrating trauma-informed practice into professional conduct and/or a programme of work. Trauma-informed practice asks ‘what’s happened to you?’ rather than ‘what’s wrong with you?’ (Levers 2012)7. Trauma-informed practice is based upon strengths and upon the principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment alongside respect for diversity (Fallot and Harris 2009)8. 

Researchers can also incorporate these principles into research design, data collection, analysis and dissemination of research findings by, for example, co-producing with research participants to: shape the research purpose and approach and create the research questions; working with peer researchers; interpret findings; and disseminate research findings. 

Concluding comments

To reduce the risk of re-traumatisation and ensure the wellbeing of researchers, social research organisations and institutions may like to reflect upon the extent to which they incorporate trauma-informed practice, where there may be gaps and what steps can be taken to ensure researchers and research processes are trauma-informed. This can be done through consideration of:

  • organisational policies and procedures
  • training and trauma-informed supervision for researchers
  • research processes and research design , including approaches to ethics
  • guidelines for how social researchers interact with and include research participants in a way that ensures safety and empowerment.

Case study

A concrete example of a study that was implemented in a trauma-informed manner is a ‘what works’ in supporting the emotional health and wellbeing of children who experience child sexual exploitation (CSE) (Smeaton 2018)9.  The study included face-to-face interviews with children who were being supported by a specialist service that delivered trauma-informed practice, and observations of  centre-based activities with those children. The children were consulted with by their support workers about if, and how, they would like to participate in the what works study. Only children at a certain stage of recovery from CSE were invited to participate in the study. With children’s permission, the researcher was given details by project support workers of the children participating in the study with clear guidelines to the limits of their participation and what it was appropriate to discuss with them. These guidelines included, for example: the location where interviews should take place; potential triggers to avoid which could  cause upset or distress; appropriate language to use in order to ensure accessibility and aid communication and understanding; and focusing upon thoughts and feelings rather than experiences. Individual interview arrangements were made to suit individual needs. Those children participating in the study were provided with the opportunity to meet with the researcher in an informal manner prior to data collection taking place so that the first meeting with the child was not for data collection. This first meeting included the children asking appropriate questions about the researcher and her work. As the study included addressing CSE and other forms of abuse, the researcher received support from a clinical supervisor experienced in supporting those working with trauma.

AUTHOR: Emilie Smeaton is an Evaluation Manager with The National Lottery Community Fund. She has a Masters of Research in Politics and over twenty years experience of carrying out social research. Prior to her current role, Emilie ran her own social research consultancy and held a range of senior positions in international and national charities and has worked in academic institutions. CONTACT: [email protected]


[1] SAMHSA. (2014) SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. Accessed on 27/06/19 at

[2] Van Der Kolk, B. (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. London: Penguin Books.

[3] Perlman, L. and Maclan, P. (1995) ‘Vicarious traumatization: An Empirical study of the effects of trauma work on trauma therapists’. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26 (6), pp 558 - 565.

[4] Saatkvitne, K. Gamble, S. Pearlman, L. and Lev, B. (2000) Risking connections. A training curriculum for working with survivors of childhood abuse. Lutherville MD: Sidran Press.

[5] Trippany, R. White Kress, V. and Wilcoxon, A. (2004) ‘Preventing vicarious trauma. What counsellors should know when working with trauma survivors’. Journal of Counselling and Development 82, pp 31 – 37.

[6] Van Der Werwe, A. and Hunt, X. (2019) ‘Secondary trauma among trauma researchers: Lessons from the field’. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 11 (1), pp 10 - 18.

[7] Levers, L. (2012) Trauma counselling: Theories and interventions. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

[8] Fallot, R. and Harris, M. (2009) Creating cultures of trauma-informed care (CCTIC): A self-assessment and planning protocol. Accessed on 28/06/19 at:

[9] Smeaton, E. (2018) Bridging the Gap: Addressing the emotional health and wellbeing of young people who experience, or are at risk of, child sexual exploitation. London: Barnardo’s.