The support of family and friends is critical for someone who is coming to terms with a traumatic event. There is a lot you can do to help the person who has been affected. Research tells us that those who have witnessed or experienced trauma are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they have strong support from close friends and family members.
Providing support is not always as easy as it may seem: some people are able to talk openly about extremely stressful or upsetting events in a way that makes them seem unemotional or casual. They might even smile or laugh, or make jokes about what happened to them.
This can seem strange or confusing, but this response is more common than many people realise. It happens because trauma can cause such strong feelings of fear, anxiety, or other distress that the person’s mind may “cut off” or dissociate from their emotions.
What to Look For
It can be difficult to see someone you care about struggle with the distress caused by a traumatic event. You may find yourself worrying about their wellbeing, and you may feel helpless when confronted by their emotional reactions to the event.
People who experience continuing difficulties following a traumatic experience may seem “shut down” or distant, and you may feel as if your loved one is closing you off. For some people this happens because they are trying not to think about the trauma, or because they are trying to block out painful memories. Others may feel sad or numb, or they may lack the energy to pursue interests or goals. They may stop participating in family life, ignore loved ones’ offers of help, or become irritable.
It is important to remember that these reactions are not a reflection on you. Rather, they are signs that your loved one may not be coping. They are likely to have great need for your ongoing support, but may be struggling to see a way out of their distress. They may have difficulty asking for help.
Provide Practical Support for Trauma
After going through a traumatic experience, it’s important to re-establish a normal routine. This helps restore a sense of predictability and control. Here are some ideas for how you can help a person set up their routine:
- Recognise that they have been through an extremely stressful event and may need time and space to deal with it. You can help them to find that time and space by providing practical support, such as offering to take care of the kids, or do the weekly shopping.
- Encourage them to limit their exposure to media coverage of the event. You might offer to keep track of the news and inform them of new or important information so that they don’t feel the need to monitor it constantly.
- Encourage them to look after themselves by getting plenty of rest, eating well, exercising regularly, and making time for relaxation, as well as cutting back on coffee, cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol.
- Do enjoyable things with them, and encourage them to plan at least one such activity each day. You may need to help them come up with some ideas by asking them what activities they used to enjoy before the traumatic event. If you already know what used to bring the person happiness, you may be able to suggest some activities.
- Acknowledge their achievements. Sometimes it’s hard to see that things are improving, and the person may need you to point out when they have achieved a goal or made progress, no matter how small.
- Encourage them to seek professional help if they are still finding it hard to cope two weeks or more after the traumatic event.
Provide Emotional Support for Trauma
Your friend or family member may or may not want to talk about their experience or feelings. There is nothing wrong with this: it’s important not to force people to confront the event or their reactions before they are ready.
If they do want to talk, the following tips may be helpful.
- Choose a time to talk when you won’t be interrupted or feel rushed or tired.
- Reassure them that distress is to be expected after what they have experienced.
- Make another time to talk if it seems like the person is too distressed to continue.
- Understand that talking about trauma can be painful, and the person may get upset. This is a natural part of the person coming to terms with their experience. Don’t feel that you have to make their distress go away. You are there to listen, not solve.
Listening is the most important element in this interaction. Don’t worry about having to say “the right thing”. There is no right thing to say, but here are a few pointers:
- Try to put yourself in their shoes. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer examples from your own life, and don’t talk about yourself.
- Avoid offering simple reassurances such as, “I know how you feel”, or, “You’ll be OK”.
- Acknowledge their distress with statements like, “It’s really tough to go through something like this”, “This is such a tough time for you”, or, “Sometimes it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel”.
- Ask leading questions like, “Would it be helpful to talk about (the event)?”, “You’ve had a rough time, how are you doing?”
- You might ask how the event has impacted other people. For example: “How’s Sarah doing?”
- Show that you understand by re-phrasing the information they give you. Try starting with something like, “You seem really…”, “It sounds like…”, “Did I understand right that you…”, “No wonder you feel…”
If they don’t want to talk, you can still show your support by spending time with them, talking about other things, and doing practical things to help. Let them be alone for a while if that’s what they want, but encourage them to have company for some time each day. Becoming isolated or cutting themselves off from other people is likely to make matters worse rather than better.
Look After Yourself
This may be the most important thing you can do to help your loved one. Supporting someone who has been through a traumatic event can take a toll on you, sometimes so much so that your own health can be affected, and you can no longer act as an effective support person. It is crucial that you take time out and reach out to friends and other supportive people in your community.
You might benefit from the help of a counsellor or support group. Your family doctor or a mental health professional can provide you with information and the names of people and organisations that can help.
Trauma and PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape, or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.
PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as “shell shock” during the years of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II. However, PTSD is not unique to combat veterans. It can occur in all people, of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and at any age.
PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of Canadian adults every year, and an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD.
People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.
A diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an upsetting traumatic event. However, the exposure could be indirect rather than first hand. For example, PTSD could occur in an individual learning about the violent death of a close family member or friend. It can also occur as a result of repeated exposure to horrible details of trauma, for example, when police officers are exposed to details of child abuse cases.
Professional Treatment for Trauma – Heartbeat Trauma Release
Treatment for trauma usually takes the form of some kind of “talk therapy”, in which the patient talks about the trauma with a therapist or counsellor, sometimes in great detail, and tries to understand their emotions and thoughts in order to gain better control over them.
There are some drawbacks to this approach. One is that the process takes a long time – years, or even decades. Another is that treatment is not focused on curing the effects of the trauma, but on managing them to enable the patient to live with them.
But perhaps the biggest disadvantage to talk therapy is the need to talk. While some people do gain a cathartic benefit from talking about their experiences, for others it can be devastating. Having to relive the trauma and delve into painful memories can have a retraumatizing effect.
At One Trauma, we make use of the Heartbeat Trauma Release (HTR) method to show clients how they can permanently release the negative thoughts and destructive emotions that are associated with their traumas. The process is quick, the results are permanent, and there is no requirement for the person to talk about what happened to them.
If you feel that your loved one could benefit from this treatment, contact us for more information. In-person retreats and virtual sessions are available.