After years of unpleasant and trauma inducing mediations with my sexual assault and harassment survivor clients where even if the cases resolved there was weeks if not months of work necessary to unwind the trauma caused, I decided to focus my mediation practice to solely these types of cases.

Try as I might, I was not able to find effective and trauma informed mediators.  So, I became one.

A Trauma-Informed Practice is a strengths-based framework rooted in understanding the impact of a trauma and emphasizing in the physical, psychological, and emotional safety for trauma survivors.

For mediators working with trauma survivors, it is critical to have an approach that is trauma sensitive, and trauma informed. Trauma is extremely complex and is particularly important to understand the impact that it has on the course of a case-and how it can quickly derail a mediation.

To better understand this, a mediator should first understand the definition of a trauma:

  • Trauma can be defined as the injury resulting from an experience that overwhelms one’s ability to protect oneself and stay safe. The injury can be physical, developmental, emotional, relational and/or spiritual. Sometimes people heal enough from the injury and recover healthy functioning, but for most trauma or PTSD is a life-long injury.
  • Trauma is also the brain and body’s response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.

A trauma informed mediator will understand how the brain manages those emotions and rather than trigger a trauma response during mediation will be able to pivot to help the survivor make the best decisions for the case.

In the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala are extensively interconnected and work in concert to tune the expression of emotions, such as fear and anxiety. Under physiologically stressful conditions, the medial prefrontal cortex exerts inhibitory top–down control over amygdala activity, limiting its output and thus preventing inappropriate emotional expressions. However, under adverse conditions such as a long day of mediation in a sexual assault case, the prolonged exposure to inescapable stress that precipitates the development of psychiatric conditions including anxiety disorders and depression, since the prefrontal control becomes defective, the result in aberrant amygdala activation causes additional trauma related emotion and behavior.

Any mediator who takes these cases should be considering these pitfalls and commit to the “do no harm” model of mediation. Are clients operating out of their prefrontal cortex or the amygdala when you ask them questions about the assault? Of course they are and they are reliving their trauma.  Once the amygdala activates the “fight, flight, freeze or faun” response, it is very difficult to undo that damage as an attorney advocate and get the client calm enough to make good decisions about their case.

When implementing Trauma-Informed practices in mediation, is important to understand how life events have directly impacted the brain functionality and when clients are operating out of their fear-driven brain, there is an inability to see options and practice perspective-taking.

By way of contrast, when employing Trauma-Informed techniques, the survivor can engage the prefrontal cortex which leads to brainstorming and problem-solving. The mediation process benefits when clients do not feel stuck, can see their choices without reliving their trauma, and are able to have empathy for the person across from them.

It is possible for a plaintiff survivor to have control over their emotional reactions during a mediation in the right environment and work collaboratively with the Trauma-Informed mediator and their counsel to a successful outcome. Select your mediator like you would select an expert—do they have the right experience and approach to bring about a successful resolution.

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