6 Ways to Support a Loved One Dealing With Trauma
Trauma wrecks lives. It destroys people’s perceptions and feelings of safety and makes them run a constant defense pattern of living on the edge. It’s an experience that made someone fear for life or did extreme damage to their inner self and cannot be overcome through natural internal processing. Simply put, to overcome trauma — you need help.
Trauma takes many forms and presents in many different ways. It can come from a one time event such as a car wreck or a natural disaster or it can be developed over time from repeated abuse or harm from others. Trauma can be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or referred to as the newer form of trauma resulting from a long period of harm with multiple traumas known as Complex PTSD. Repressed trauma, meaning trauma that is mentally blocked as a way to protect the person who experienced it, and traumatic memories combined with the trauma diagnosis and terrifying symptoms all play a part in the long road to recovery.
If you have a friend or loved one going through trauma or trying to heal as they deal with repressed traumatic memories, they need your help. They cannot do this alone. Trauma survivors are extremely resilient. They have survived untold horrors and found ways to cope in the aftermath, but now they need to learn how to trust and let other people help them. You can help them if you’re willing to do the work.
So how can you help a trauma survivor?
1. Learn about Trauma and Its Effect on Bodies and Lives.
Trauma is ugly. It takes no prisoners; its goal is to destroy. Therefore, if you truly want to help someone going through trauma or dealing with memories from it, you need to know what you’re going up against.
One of the main things you need to learn is that trauma recovery is a long process with a lot of different stages. In the beginning, if the person dealing with trauma is just remembering parts of it for the first time in years, they’re going to question if anything in their life is true. Their life is upside down and how they perceive the world they’re living in will change. As the recovery progresses there will be periods of intense anger, hurt, pain, unstable emotions and most importantly, grief.
Trauma doesn’t just affect emotions though, it also plays into the body and brings other problems with it such as severe depression and anxiety. The more you learn about what trauma recovery looks like, the more you can support someone walking through it.
2. Help Them Feel Safe.
People who have a history of trauma do not feel safe. Their memories revolve around the time that their life was in danger, and they have spent years developing ways to protect themselves. The survivor might be at a point in their recovery where they can tell you what they need to feel safe. People at the beginning of the recovery process probably do not know how to voice what they need to feel safe. But they will give you clues, and it’s important you try to pick up on those clues.
Watch for signs they are uncomfortable or afraid and help get them to a safer place if you see they are struggling.
It is very important that any request the survivor makes about their safety be honored, even if you do not understand it. This is simply a way to let them know you’re on their side, that you validate their feelings and you’re going to help protect them. By helping them feel safe, you will help them build trust in you.
3. Ask Before Touching.
When someone’s hurting, one of the first things we may want to do is pull them into a hug and tell them it will be alright. Touch is hard for survivors of child abuse or sexual assault. A simple handshake might be doable for some, but anything past that is off-limits for most.
Touch many times brings up painful memories. Because of this fact, many trauma survivors live on pins and needles about people wanting to touch them. They never know when a hug or a light touch on the forearm will bring that traumatic memory back.
It’s simple. Before you hug someone, pat them on the back or touch their arm, ask if they are OK with touch.
4. Empower Them.
A large part of trauma recovery is dealing with the lies that have been thoroughly implanted in someone who has faced death or extreme harm. Most likely the survivor believes the trauma is their fault and that their future is bleak. A trauma survivor thinks in terms of fear and that they are not capable or deserving of living in a healthy way. They need friends who believe in them, remind them of truths and empower them.
When a survivor asks something of you, do not discount what they have asked for. Do not belittle what they are going for or assume their healing is on your timeline. Encourage them and praise them for the extremely hard work they are doing on a daily basis.
Trauma survivors are facing a hard battle. Depending on the severity or duration of their trauma, they may not be able to work, may be struggling to provide for their family or they might have problems functioning with simple tasks. They do not need people to step in and take over for them or to go above their heads. Survivors need people who can help them, while giving them the power they deserve to run their own lives.
5. Walk With Them.
Recovery from trauma is a long process, and it can be taxing. The best thing you can do for a friend or loved one going through trauma is simply committing to be there for them for the duration. Stay in contact with them daily or weekly to ask how they are doing. Help give them options to get them out of their house, such as going on a walk together or meeting for coffee. If they trust you, offer your ear as a sounding board for when they are overwhelmed. Let them know they can text you at any time of day or night, since night is harder for a lot of trauma survivors.
The worst thing you can do for someone recovering for trauma is to abandon them. If they come to you and ask for help, either commit for the entire process or politely tell them you’re not able to do it at all. Simply dropping someone off on the therapist’s doorstep and walking away is not helping them, it is making them feel abandoned and unloved.
Many survivors struggle with feelings of worthlessness and shame along with the belief they are a burden to others. If you tell them you want to be there for them but never show up, you are confirming those beliefs to them.
6. Learn How to Protect Yourself.
Trauma is hard and walking with someone through it can be demanding. Many people dealing with trauma will need a team of friends who can help to support them without burning out.
During the process of walking through trauma with someone, you will hear stories that are hard to hear and encounter emotions that are troubling to you. You cannot help them if you are not in a good mindset yourself.
In order to help someone else walking through trauma, consider checking in with a therapist for yourself. The therapist can help you set boundaries to keep yourself healthy while also helping you navigate through troubling emotions and worry.
Trauma destroys. Hope restores. You have a chance to help bring hope and healing to your loved one. The road will not be easy, but imagine how it feels to the person currently walking it alone. No one deserves to live a life of shame and fear because of harm inflicted on them by someone else. Stand alongside people dealing with trauma and speak healing into their lives through your actions. You can help your loved ones heal from trauma and give them a better life, the life they deserved all along.
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