How can you help someone who has experienced trauma?
You may have a friend or a loved one who has experienced a recent traumatic event. Or perhaps someone you care about has a significant history of trauma in their past. It can be scary and overwhelming to consider how you can best support them when they are struggling because of trauma. You may dread what could happen in the future as they continue to be challenged by their experiences.
What is trauma?
It can be helpful to consider what trauma is and how it is different from ordinary difficult experiences.
Bad things happen to everyone. Typically when something painful, scary or challenging happens to you, you will experience a range of feelings in response, process what happened to you, and eventually move on. What happened to you becomes an unpleasant memory but feels firmly in the past. Trauma is different than ordinary painful experiences. It can be defined as a negative event or series of events that have caused psychological injury. The key difference is that a person who has been traumatized is still experiencing the psychological pain, even if what they experienced happened weeks, months, or years ago.
Types of trauma
Trauma can be related to a recent significant event like a car accident or criminal incident. Or it could be an experience or series of experiences in the distant past, like a history of childhood abuse. It also doesn’t have to be a major incident. While getting bullied once at school as a kid may not necessarily be traumatic, getting bullied over and over certainly can be. Finally, you don’t have to be directly involved in a traumatic incident for it be traumatizing. Witnessing violence happen to others can be traumatizing even if you’re not the victim.
Trauma is intrusive
A key component of trauma is that it is intrusive. This means that someone who has been traumatized can move on with life, have a family, a job, hobbies, and yet the pain of their trauma can intrude into their lives at any time. There are lots of things that can trigger a traumatic response. If you consider that trauma is about painful memories, components of a memory can be activated by a trigger. Witnessing similar incidents to what was experienced, or sensing images, sounds, smells, and even specific interactions with others can all be triggers for these intrusive memories.
What does trauma look like?
It can be confusing to witness someone who has experienced trauma. Things may seem perfectly normal with your loved one and then a trigger happens and things shift. The traumatized person experiences the memory like it was still happening. This can take lots of forms. You may notice a reaction to some event that seems completely out of context or way bigger than necessary. When the memory is activated the person experiencing the pain of this may react with anxiety or panic or move into sadness and depression. Sometimes individuals respond by seeming to disappear - they may stop responding to what is going on around them and seem to be in a trance.
What can you do to help?
If you’ve experienced your loved one have an intrusive traumatic memory it can be really scary and confusing and you can feel helpless. How can you support them?
Ask them what they need
First, check in with them to see what they need. Don’t assume you know what is best. While you can do this in the moment, it can be helpful to talk about it and find out what they need in the future if they experience a traumatic memory again. Ask them about their experience of trauma and what could be most helpful when they notice intrusive memories or feelings.
Help them stay grounded and in the present
If it seems like an intrusive memory has taken over, it can be really helpful to try get your loved one back into the present moment. Gently call out their name to get their attention, encourage them to take a deep breath, toss a ball to them to get them back into the room with you. Anything that will (gently) encourage them to come back to the present moment can be helpful. Be careful about touch, however. Check in with your loved one to see if that is helpful or triggering.
Support them in getting help
While being a good listener is always a good thing, encouraging your loved one to talk about their trauma may not be. Again checking in can be helpful here. While talking out problems and processing emotions is often helpful, with some trauma it can actually make things worse. See what is most useful to them.
Support your friend in staying grounded and a relaxed state. What might be helpful for them? Taking a walk and getting some exercise, getting outdoors into nature, or some other way of getting them to engage with their senses can often be useful. Learning ways to help soothe strong emotions and introducing pleasurable activities can help support your loved one when feelings and memories are overwhelming.
Of course, if they feel comfortable with it, you can talk with them about how they might be able to get help. There are treatments for trauma that really work to heal the psychological injury that has occurred. Intrusive memories can shift to unpleasant but not overwhelming ones. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is one of several techniques that research has proven to be highly effective in processing trauma.
Take good care of yourself
Vicarious trauma is a real thing. If you hear about traumatic experiences over and over, you can become traumatized yourself. In addition to helping your loved one get support, consider how you can support yourself. It can be helpful to consider your own self-care and work on creating healthy boundaries so that you can continue to provide support. If you are feeling overwhelmed by interactions with your loved one or experiencing intrusive symptoms yourself, working with a therapist can be useful.
Loving someone who has experienced trauma can be overwhelming and challenging. Having a clear plan about how you can support your loved one can help you feel more in control and can also help you support your partner in healing.