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Closeup of a researcher taking notes on a clipboard while interviewing someone.

When an individual is exposed to a situation that involves the threat of death, serious injury, or another form of violence—whether they experience it themselves, witness the event, or learn about it occurring to a loved one—it may be considered traumatic. It is estimated that approximately 80 percent of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

How does understanding trauma and the impact of trauma matter for researchers? For those who focus their work on issues related to victimization or other traumatic events, it is necessary to embed a victim-centered, trauma informed approach at each stage of the research process. For other researchers whose focus may not be directly related to trauma or victimization, this perspective is still critical. Given the prevalence of trauma in the general population, it is important for all researchers to be aware and mindful of trauma, regardless of the topic they are studying. The approach to “trauma-informed” research must include a clear understanding of what trauma is, along with being mindful of its impact on these individuals.

Understanding trauma

Research demonstrates how individuals who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events may endure significant impacts from their victimizations. These impacts vary by individual and may permeate physical, emotional, cognitive or psycho-social domains. Taken together, these impacts are often referred to as traumatic stress reactions, which are normal reactions to traumatic events that can impact a person’s behavior, health, and daily functioning. These reactions can be triggered by reminders of the traumatic event, including physical prompts, emotional cues, or even being asked questions related to the event.

Most trauma-informed care models centralize the importance of practitioners and responders understanding trauma and the various ways it might affect those who experience it. Some experts in the field refer to a “continuum” of implementing trauma-informed approaches. For example, The Missouri Model: A Developmental Framework for Trauma-Informed Approaches, suggests that organizations take steps toward being trauma-informed in stages, first becoming “trauma aware” (beginning to consider how trauma affects individuals and staff), moving to “trauma sensitive” (considering the principles of trauma-informed care and how to prepare for changes in the organization to align policies and practices), “trauma responsive” (integration of principles into practice), and finally, “trauma-informed” (full implementation of practices across multiple levels of the organization).

These models can be translated to the research context, as best practices in research methods share common principles with trauma-informed care, including the principles of safety, participant’s choice and control over how they participate in research, communication, and collaboration through participatory methods. Trauma-informed research requires us to operate from a space of understanding that any individual may have traumatic experiences in their history and should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of whether they have disclosed those experiences. Essentially, a trauma-informed approach seeks to minimize the potential of inadvertently re-traumatizing someone during their involvement in our research studies.

Importantly, some research projects may need to be more cognizant of this approach than others. For example, work focusing on experiences with victimization and interactions with the justice system often necessitates individuals to speak about their trauma or experiences that are adjacent to their trauma. It is critical that these projects are rooted in trauma-informed approaches. Other research focusing on topics such as tobacco use or climate change may not need to centralize these approaches in the same way. However, in a continual effort to “do no harm,” all research, regardless of the topic, should be considerate of trauma-informed approaches.

Putting trauma-informed research methods into practice


There are many ways to consider trauma throughout the research process, from the way staff are trained, to the ways studies are designed and implemented, to the way analysis and research dissemination are conducted.

Some practices that researchers can employ to move toward responsible trauma-informed research, include

Training and equipping staff:

  • Discussing the various possibilities regarding exposure to trauma, and whether they may arise
  • Educating staff about trauma reactions
  • Planning for reactions and asking staff which roles they would be comfortable serving.

Designing the study:

  • Reducing burden on participants by using the least intrusive methods possible (e.g.,  secondary data over interviews)
  • Evaluating questions being asked of participants to identify ways to reduce burden
  • Programming surveys and structuring interview protocols to include trigger warnings or breaks before and after sensitive questions.

Implementing the study:

  • Outlining a distress protocol should someone exhibit traumatic stress reactions with options for the participant to pause, end the interview, or in some cases, talk with an on-call advocate or clinician
  • Providing interview or survey questions to participants in advance, when appropriate
  • Preparing options for resources should someone need support related to traumatic events.

One example of implementing trauma-informed research methods is when conducting cognitive interviewing. Cognitive interviewing is common practice in research to ensure that the questions asked address the intended constructs and are understood by participants. Standard cognitive interview questions include, “Tell me what you are thinking” or “How do you remember that?” In some scenarios, such questions may be interpreted as disbelief, highlight memory gaps, or create power dynamics between the interviewer and the participant.

However, researchers have identified ways to reframe these questions in ways that are trauma informed. For example, questions can be reframed to ask the participant if they are comfortable sharing information as a show of respect for their autonomy, such as “If you are comfortable sharing, what were you thinking about as you came to your answer?”

Don’t forget the impact of trauma on researchers

It is also critical to pay close attention to the well-being of those who are conducting research. “Vicarious trauma” can result from consistent or significant exposure to others’ traumatic experiences. While vicarious trauma is most frequently discussed amongst mental health providers, healthcare workers, or other direct service providers, researchers may be susceptible in the context of reviewing case files, conducting interviews, transcribing audio, or coding transcripts. This consideration should also extend to staff involved in editorial or formatting support.

Incorporating trauma-informed research practices means being mindful of people’s experiences with and exposure to traumatic events and ensuring that practices mitigate the potential for traumatic stress triggers to arise- and to have a plan to address when they do. Adopting these practices will make for a better experience for everyone involved and can lead to richer and more accurate research data.

RTI Victimization and Response researchers Jaclyn Kolnik, Hannah Feeney and Rebecca Pfeffer have launched a Just Science podcast about this important topic. Check it out for more information.

Trauma-informed care extends beyond mental health services to various other sectors such as corrections, homeless services, child welfare, and schools. It can also be applied in the field of research, guiding decision-making and organizational structure which benefits both participants and researchers. A trauma-informed approach should be prioritized in research projects to address the impact of traumatic stress on mental and physical health. This involves creating safe environments and setting up study procedures that seek to avoid re-traumatizing participants. Just Science explores how experts apply this approach throughout the research process from project management to data collection and dissemination, revolutionizing organizations and promoting safety and support for all. This season is funded by the RTI International Justice Practice Area.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Jaclyn Houston-Kolnik (Community Research Psychologist), Hannah Feeney (Community Psychologist), and Rebecca Pfeffer (Senior Research Criminologist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.