Helping Someone Through Trauma
by Teresia Smith
What is trauma? In simple words, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. It can be really hard if someone you care about is struggling with the effects of trauma. You might be unsure of what to say or do if someone talks to you about trauma. Let’s talk about how you can help.
First, you must remember that you are not here to “fix” them or tell them what to do. It is important that you don’t pressure someone who is sharing their traumatic experience with you. Give them time and let them move at their own pace, disclosing what they are comfortable with. Remember to protect their privacy, not sharing their experiences with others. Unless they ask for your advice, try not to share your thoughts. Often, they just want to hear that you believe them and you are there to offer support. Try not to ask a lot of questions but let them unfold their story on their own.
It is also important to not criticize their choices or reactions. Everyone reacts differently to things but we must not place blame on their choices. And don’t minimize their experience. Some things are much bigger to others than to us and it’s not really a choice as to what traumatizes someone. It’s understandable to want to help them improve things or to feel frustrated if they disagree about what to do. But, remember, traumatic experiences usually involve being powerless or having control taken away from you. So if you pressure them or tell them what to do, this might add to their feelings of powerlessness. Instead, try to encourage them, provide them with information on services that may be helpful, and support them to make their own choices.
Supporting someone after a traumatic experience can be taxing on you. Making sure that you look after your own wellbeing can mean that you continue to have the energy, time and distance to help them. Be careful to take a break when you need it. If you notice you are feeling overwhelmed, take time for yourself. Vicarious trauma is real and you may need to talk to someone about how you are feeling to protect your mental and emotional health. Self-care is very important when you are offering your support to someone in need. Simple things may give you an opportunity to clear your mind and relax, such as taking a nap, reading a good book, enjoying a nature walk, listening to calming music, or spending time with friends.
Knowing what services are available in your area can be very helpful. Crisis Services of North Alabama offers free and confidential services to victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. You may reach our Jackson County office for an appointment with an advocate at 256.574.5826 or you may reach a crisis counselor 24/7 on our HELPline at 256.716.1000. You are not alone.