Trust, Safety, and Control: The Impact of Trauma on Fundamental Human Needs

article photo of a person who is overcome by traumatic experiences, visually portrayed by chains that had bound them by Dr. Sam Goldstein

After forty-five years of clinical practice evaluating and treating thousands of people of all ages, I have come to the realization that trauma of any sort, mental or physical steals away three, often difficult to quantify, fundamental human needs,: trust, safety, and control. These three serve a crucial role in our lives. These needs are deeply interconnected, essential for our emotional well-being, physical and mental health, and overall sense of security. While they may appear as abstract concepts, their significance becomes apparent when we consider how they shape our daily lives in all interactions, relationships, and decision-making processes. Trauma, in its various forms, can profoundly impact an individual's ability to trust, feel safe, and maintain a sense of control in their life. In this month’s article, I will delve into the importance of trust, safety, and control examining how trauma can disrupt these vital aspects of human existence.

The Significance of Trust

Trust is the foundation of all meaningful relationships. It is the belief that someone or something is reliable, honest, and dependable. Trust is vital in personal relationships, professional settings, even in our interactions with institutions and systems. Without trust, the fabric of society unravels, as trust is the glue that holds communities, organizations, and even nations together.

In personal relationships, trust forms the bedrock upon which intimacy, love, and connections are built. It allows individuals to be vulnerable, share their thoughts and feelings, and rely on one another for support. Trust contributes to a sense of security, knowing that you can depend on others and that they, in turn, can depend on you.

Professionally, trust is crucial for effective collaboration and teamwork. In a workplace where trust is present, employees feel valued and appreciated, leading to higher job satisfaction and productivity. Trust also extends to business transactions and interactions with customers. Consumers are more likely to buy products or services from companies they trust.

In society, trust in institutions and systems is vital for social cohesion. Citizens trust in the legal system to deliver justice, in healthcare institutions to provide care, and in government to protect their rights and well-being. When trust in these systems erodes, it can lead to social unrest and a breakdown of the social contract. Unfortunately we see this increasingly occurring in our country and the world.

The Essence of Safety

Safety is a second fundamental, human need closely linked to trust. It encompasses physical and emotional safety, as well as a sense of security in one's environment. Just as trust is crucial for building relationships, safety is essential for maintaining them.

Physical safety refers to protection from harm or danger. It includes basic needs like shelter, food, and protection from physical threats. Feeling physically safe allows individuals to focus on other aspects of their lives, such as personal growth, relationships, and pursuing their goals.

Emotional safety involves feeling secure in expressing one's thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment, ridicule, or harm. Emotional safety fosters healthy communication and is essential for the development of emotional intelligence and mental well-being.

A sense of security in one's environment encompasses the belief that one's surroundings are stable and predictable. It allows individuals to plan for the future and take calculated risks. This sense of security extends to financial stability, knowing that one's basic needs are met.

The Need for Control

Control represents an individual's ability to influence or manage their circumstances, make decisions, and take action to achieve their goals. It is closely tied to autonomy and self-determination. Control is essential because it empowers individuals to shape their lives, set goals, and make choices that align with their values and aspirations. The “terrible twos” of childhood reflects the toddler’s realization that they can control their behavior. It is a powerful drive.

In personal relationships, a lack of control can lead to feelings of helplessness and dependence. Having control over one's life allows for healthy boundaries and autonomy within relationships. It also plays a role in decision-making, as individuals with a sense of control are more likely to make choices that align with their values and desires.

In the workplace, control over one's tasks and responsibilities can lead to higher job satisfaction and motivation. When employees have a sense of control, they are more engaged in their work and more committed to achieving organizational goals.

Control is also essential for mental health and well-being. It provides a sense of agency and the ability to cope with life's challenges. When individuals feel out of control, it can lead to feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and a reduced capacity to manage stress.

The Impact of Trauma

Trauma, whether physical, emotional, or psychological, can have a profound and lasting impact on an individual's ability to trust, feel safe, and maintain control in their life. Trauma creates uncertainty and disrupts these fundamental needs in various ways, often leading to a range of psychological and emotional struggles.

Trauma can shatter an individual's trust in themselves, others, and the world around them. The experience of a serious physical injury, betrayal, abuse, or a traumatic event, can erode belief in the reliability and safety of people and institutions. Rebuilding trust after trauma is a challenging and often lengthy process that may require therapy and support.

Trauma can leave individuals with a constant sense of danger and vulnerability. This heightened state of alertness, known as hypervigilance, can make it difficult for them to feel safe, even in non-threatening situations. Trauma survivors may struggle with anxiety, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts that interfere with their sense of security.

Trauma also involves a loss of control, as individuals may have been powerless to prevent or escape the traumatic event. This loss of control can lead to feelings of helplessness and a sense that the world is unpredictable and dangerous. Trauma survivors may also engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms, isolating themselves or lubricating their unhappiness with addictive substances in an attempt to regain a sense of control.

The Healing Journey: Restoring Trust, Safety and Control

Recovering from trauma and rebuilding trust, safety, and control is a challenging but essential process. Therapies, support networks, and self-care play a significant role in this journey as well as in some cases, learning to live with permanent adversities such as the long-term consequences of a brain injury.

Trauma-focused therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), can help individuals process traumatic memories, develop coping strategies, manage chronic pain, and rebuild a sense of safety and control. Therapists create a safe and trusting environment for clients to explore their trauma and work towards healing. Psychiatric medications may be beneficial as well.

Connecting with trusted friends, family members, or support groups can provide a sense of safety and belonging. These relationships can offer emotional support and validation, which are essential for healing. In our work together Dr. Bob Brooks and I emphasize the need to have a charismatic person in our lives from whom we gather strength in times of need. We write about this and other resilience qualities in our book The Power of Resilience.

Practicing self-care, mindfulness, biofeedback, and relaxation techniques can help individuals manage the emotional and physical symptoms of trauma. These practices promote a sense of safety and self-compassion.

Regaining a sense of control may involve setting achievable goals, making choices, and taking steps towards personal growth. Empowerment is a gradual process that allows individuals to rebuild their confidence and self-esteem.

The Human Need for Trust, Safety and Control

Trust, safety, and control are all intrinsic to the human experience. They form the basis for healthy relationships, emotional well-being, and personal growth. Trauma disrupts these fundamental needs, but with support and resources, trauma survivors can embark on a healing journey to restore their sense of trust, safety, and control. Recognizing the importance of these needs and addressing them in ourselves and others is a crucial step toward creating a more compassionate and empathetic society. ◆