Coaches don’t work with trauma – the lie

By Kate Brassington

In our training, coaches are told that we do not work with trauma because that is the job of therapists.

But like so many things in life, this simple statement of black and white actually contains a massive grey area.

Specialist coaches work WITH trauma

In fact, some coaches DO work with trauma. Here’s how.

But first – What is Trauma?

Trauma research centres around understanding the negative psychological impact that occurs when events and certain situations overwhelm us and outstrip our capacity to cope. It can happen at the time – or years later[i].

One leading theory in the field is Shattered Assumptions Theory (proposed by Janoff-Bulman, 2004). This names the psychological injury that can occur when assumptions of safety and security are shattered.

Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life – quote by Judith Herman

Myth Busting

There’s a lot of preconceptions out there. A huge stigma around mental health. A lot of hidden pain and suffering. So let me bust some myths for you.

It’s NOT the event itself

A car crash, or battlefield, are not in themselves “traumatic”. Don’t get me wrong – events are often central to this, hence the common misconception that events ARE the trauma. However, the list proposed by Treleaven (2018) might surprise you: accidents, environmental disasters, physical violence, terrorist incidents, societal oppression and discrimination, (bullying, harassment, slavery, colonisation).

It’s NOT necessarily a diagnosis

Childhood Developmental Trauma is thankfully becoming much better known and understood through the work of Bessel van der Kolk and others like him who proposed the theory in 2005 (still fight to get it recognised as a diagnosable condition[ii]). Abuse, neglect and household dysfunction (Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)) can contribute to lifelong mental and physical health issues including Complex PTSD. It’s a complex and controversial area of mental health. (Note: so a client with this in their past would be lucky to get a clear diagnosis, and may well not self-identify as “traumatised”.)   

You were NOT there

Yup, the negative impact of the event / situation isn’t restricted to those who were there.

Secondary Trauma is now a recognised phenomenon. Professionals working with people affected by traumatic events, or any people in 2nd-hand contact with those in the event, risk the same psychological injuries as those who were there 1st hand[iii].

You knew nothing about it

Yup, trauma can be passed on down generations, even to children who were never at the event / in the situation, or saw or heard anything about it. They learn traumatised behaviours through primary carers, and through cell memory.[iv] (Note: so a client with this in their past would be unlikely to self-identify as “traumatised”.)   

It’s NOT labelled as trauma

Burnout – This chronic condition can cause severe mental injury through perceived demands outweighing perceived resources[v].

Stress – This can cause psychological injury over long term, when the magnitude of the demands being made degrade the individuals’ sense of control. At work, if an organisation continues to demand a high personal price without making systemic changes… this can lead to feelings of betrayal, intensify psychological injury, apathy and disillusionment[vi].

Coaches who work WITH trauma – a grey area

There are many layers to this. Sure, burnout and stress are not the same as an event-based trauma (remember, we are talking a significant grey area here for a reason) and the nature of the event or situation does play a role[vii].

But it makes sense – has something shattered your assumptions about safety and security? The brain, mind, body, and spirit use the same mechanisms to record (encode) the lessons, and these can be triggered even by something that seems perfectly normal and safe.

So there is a need for some coaches to work with trauma. Granted, the levels of pain and suffering are not for all coaches – so keep it in mind especially if you are in coaching and get “stuck”.

What does it look like in real life?

“That was the last straw” my executive client explained last week, as she got upset. “Why do I consistently over-react? All I had to do was speak next in a group zoom call. Why did I feel I might die? When will I learn to be confident? Ugh, this is so embarrassing!”

We gently worked on another layer of releasing childhood trauma. It was there, deeply buried. And now she simply has more freedom to be herself. Confident. Connected. Calm.

Moving past trauma

The good news is that trauma is not all negative. You can heal from trauma. I did. And that’s how I know coaches work with trauma.

Post-Traumatic Growth is proposed as the possible outcome of personal struggles following adversity that occur when “painful realisations of reality (the ‘dark side’) [enable] rebuilding around traumatic experience”[viii] .

However, it is not skipping down the lanes with the daisies. In my own lived experience of this, you go down into the dark before you return to the light. And now I use what I learnt on my journey to help others.

Don’t forget the body-mind in all this

It is no surprise to me that some of the best research I read on resilience, confidence, and thriving in life, comes out of the field of trauma recovery. In particular, the idea that trauma memories are encoded (saved) in multiple areas of the brain, which means (to cut a long neuroscience lesson short), that talk therapies alone are not enough for healing.

This means you need to work with the body as well.  The body powerfully shows us when hidden traumas show up in the present moment, and releases them when it feels safe. I’m trained to create this safety. This is a brilliant way for coaches to work with trauma.

The coaches who do deal with trauma – introducing Specialist Trauma-Informed Coaching

And this is where specialist coaches come in. Because with the right training, we can work within the ethical boundaries of coaching, to help a traumatised person resolve their issues as they play out in the present moment.

This type of coach is still fairly rare. As I’ve grown these last 3 years, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone.  There are a growing number of coaches who are drawn to ease a much higher level of suffering than is “usual”. We are prepared, trained, and hyper-sensitive to the ethical boundaries that ensure we always serve our clients first. And this means if they need therapy instead / as well, we help them work towards it.

I’ve discovered my tribe. We have a name. Trauma-Informed Coach. And I’m thrilled to be doing the only International Coaching Federation Accredited program in Trauma-Informed Coaching.

We are the coaches who work with trauma.

Work WITH your past, in the present moment. Like, now.

I don’t work ON your past (this would indeed be counselling or therapy).  I work WITH it, and you, to get you unstuck in life.  If this resonates, get in touch. Don’t leave it, hoping it will go away by itself. It won’t!


My journey has been intense (read more about it here), and much of what I have said in this blog is taken from my research which is published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Positive Psychology here, (Brassington & Lomas, 2020).

Watch this space!

I have plans for more blogs on confidence, resilience, and supporting women (as in: all cis and trans women, and non-binary people, who have been marginalised because of their gender, and who feel comfortable with a coach who champions their right to positive experiences as women).

Until then, please catch me on facebook, LinkedIn, or Insta!

Kate sitting on a wall with Scruff the wee dog

[i] Maguen, et. al. 2008

[ii] Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD and leaders in brain science and attachment are calling for a hard look at developmental trauma, and its inclusion in the American Psychiatric Association (APA)’s official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Dr. Allan Schore calls it “trauma in the first 1000 days,” conception to age two. Retrieved from dated 5/7/2018

[iii] Secondary Trauma – professionals working in first hand contact with people affected by traumatic events (Mitchell & Everly, 1995) or any people in second-hand contact with the people who were at such an event (Zimering, Munroe & Bird Gulliver, 2003), risk the same psychological injury as those who were first-hand in an adverse event or situation.  

[iv] Transgenerational Trauma: when the psychological consequences of parental trauma detrimentally impact their interaction with their children (Hannah, Dempster, Dyer, Lyons & Devaney, 2012 in Fitzgerald et al., 2017) to the extent that the children inadvertently hold trauma-related beliefs or display symptoms of trauma without being aware of its origin (Banyard, Englund, & Rozelle, 2001; Cherepanov, 2016), a phenomenon supported by the research into Developmental Childhood Trauma Stevens, 2013; van der Kolk, 2014, 2017). Epigenetic research on mice shows that 5 generations after being exposed to a highly traumatic combination of signal accompanied by electric shock, descendants of these mice exhibit pathological fear response at the signal alone – van der Kolk, B. 2020.  The Paths to Recovery. Virtual Action Trauma Summit. June 2020.

[v] Insufficient resources, poor design of work areas, poor workplace and managerial relationships, are strongly correlated with the chronic condition of burnout where perceived demands outweigh perceived resources (Card, 2018; Gentry, Baranowsky & Dunning, 1997; Gerada, 2018).

[vi]   The American Institute of Stress (AIS, 2019), UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE 2018) feelings of betrayal and intensify psychological injury (Morgan, 2017), apathy and disillusionment (Evans, 2018).

[vii] For example, sexual trauma was found to be more strongly associated with PTSD compared to death of a loved one (Wamser-Nanney, Howell, Schwartz & Hasselle, 2018)

[viii] Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016, p.85. Note that this comes with the caution that expectation of Post-Traumatic Growth can itself cause further distress (Ehrenrich, 2010), and that it has not yet been shown to be a universal phenomenon (Ivtsan et al., 2016). Indeed, its main criticism is that it may not exist, but instead be a highly-adaptive coping mechanism such as cognitive dissonance or positive illusion (Festinger et al., 1956 & 2008; and Taylor, 1989, cited in Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011).