It can be difficult to see someone you care about struggle with the distress being caused by a traumatic event. You may find yourself worrying about their well-being 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 ‘shut out. For some people, this happens because they are trying not to think about the trauma, or trying to block out painful memories. Others may feel sad or numbed or lack the energy to do things. They may stop participating in family life, ignore your offers of help, or become irritable.
It is important to remember that these reactions are signs that your loved one may not be coping with. These reactions are not necessarily about you. He or she probably really needs your ongoing support, but is struggling to see a way out of their distress, and struggling to ask for help.
Here are some ways you can help:
Spend time with the stressed person, without judging or demanding. It can all be too tempting to adopt the role of the “rescuer” but let them decide the pace. Their recovery will occur in its own time.
Offer support and a listening ear. Talking is one of the best things they can do to work things out – but they may need to go over things many more times than you expect. Try to be interested in what they want to say – avoid giving advice or trying to solve the problems. Also, don’t pressure them to talk if they don’t feel like it.
Ask open-ended questions to gain a better understanding of their feelings and needs. Even if you have had a similar experience, avoid the temptation to say you know how they feel. Instead, practice active listening, validate the feelings the person is sharing, and avoid sharing advice or judgment.
When possible, reflect back on what you hear. This can help clarify that you understand what they’re saying and shows that you are truly listening. For instance, if a friend tells you about an experience that made them fearful, you can reflect back by saying, “That sounds like a scary experience, and it makes you feel anxious.”
It can also be helpful to remember to use TALK:
T - Thank the survivor for sharing with you
A - Ask what would be helpful
L - Listen
K - Keep supporting them, keep checking back in.
Do your homework - Information on a wide range of mental health conditions is readily available online so make sure you educate yourself as much as you can. This will help you deal with sensitive topics much more efficiently.
Help with practical tasks and chores as this enables more of their energy and time to be given to the recovery process. But meanwhile also ask whether they about appreciate the assistance rather than rushing in all charged up.
Give them time, space, and patience – don’t take it personally if at times they are irritable, bad-tempered, or want to be alone. These are a natural part of the stress response and will pass as they recover.
Don’t try to talk them out of their reactions, minimize the event or say things like ‘you’re lucky it wasn’t worse,’ or ‘pull yourself together,’ or try to get them to look on the bright side. Stressed people need to concentrate on themselves. At first – they’ll feel supported if you let them know you are concerned, want to help, and are trying to understand. They’ll see your viewpoint as they recover.
Normalize their feelings
Normalize and validate their feelings. This doesn’t mean that you’re normalizing the bad thing that happened, but instead you’re affirming that their response to it is understandable. People respond to traumatic events differently. However, someone's feeling or acting is normal. This may include laughing, crying, anger, numbness, or other responses.
Stay calm and avoid judgment
Remain calm during the conversation and avoid letting your emotional response interfere. Remember that you can’t “fix” the situation, make the person feel better, or take their pain away. Sometimes it’s most effective to sit with them and listen.
It can also be helpful to understand and recognize your internal judgments and how they may affect your response in this situation. Having judgment about what someone could have done differently is normal, but it’s important not to verbalize that judgment, as it can cause shame and self-blame for the person. Feeling judged won’t change what happened, and it may keep someone from seeking additional support.
In addition to withholding judgment, it’s important to monitor your tone of voice. Sometimes our tones or actions can add to the intensity of what the other person is feeling. This can happen when we get upset, tell them what they should do, or demand more information.
Helpful statements to show your support:
When someone shares their trauma with you, you don’t need to try to make them feel better, you just need to be there and let them know you care. These validating statements can be very soothing when a survivor is hurting.
I believe you.
I support you.
I can only imagine what that must be like.
I might not know what to say, but I am here to listen.
That must be so painful.
This really sucks.
We don’t have to talk, I can just be here with you.
Thank you for telling me, I am here for you.
Unhelpful statements that should be avoided:
Sometimes people say harmful things when they don’t know what else to say. They might be trying to help, but because they are uncomfortable with the subject, their discomfort overrides their ability to say something helpful.
So many people have it worse
At least (insert a different trauma) didn’t occur
Just stay positive
Try not to think about it
Everyone goes through tough times
Everything will be fine
Be grateful - it could be worse
This too will pass
Look on the bright side
Although well-intentioned, telling someone to only “look on the bright side” or pushing a message of “good vibes only” can make the person’s struggles feel dismissed, minimized, or shamed. When we do this, we send a message to our struggling loved ones that their feelings are not welcome.
This can be problematic in many ways:
It may lead to a sense of shame or guilt for having struggles or feeling bad, which actually hinders healing.
Research shows that avoiding or dismissing negative emotions leads people to feel worse in the long run, compared to accepting negative emotions which are associated with better long-term mental health outcomes.
It leaves no room for one to be curious about and allows for the exploration/processing of their feelings.
It makes make one feel more isolated in their struggles.
In reality, humans experience a range of emotions - and that’s ok. There are certainly times that positivity can cultivate a real sense of hope and optimism. However, when someone is struggling, phrases that remind the person of the “bright side” or the “silver lining” are often more effective after the person feels truly listened to, validated, and understood.
How to support someone with a flow chart:
First and foremost - Ask, “would you like to talk about it?”
If they say YES - Sit and listen without judgment. You don’t need to have all the answers.
If they say NO - Ask, “would you like to go out and do an activity together?”
If they say YES - Do something nice or fun, go for a walk in the park, a cafe, or to the movies.
If they say NO - Ask, “is there anything I can do to comfort you right now?”
If they say YES - Bring them a cup of tea, a warm blanket, put a funny movie on, and hug them.
If they say NO - Ask, “would you like me to stay with you or leave you alone?”
If they say YES - Stay with them without any expectations and just let them know you are there.
If they say NO - Leave knowing you have tried your best and don’t take it personally. They may need space to recharge.
Look out for yourself
Don’t forget that to have a loved one, friend or colleague go through a trauma can be very stressful for you as well. You may find that you have:
Strong reactions of anger that it happened, sadness for them, fear for yourself.
Changes in how you see life and the world.
Nightmares or general moodiness.
Though it may seem like the person who’s dealing with trauma firsthand has more needs than you, it’s important that you still prioritize your own needs to keep yourself healthy and strong. It’s important to prioritize self-care so you don’t experience mentally burnout. This means scheduling your self-care rituals into your calendar, as this will it become a normal part of your routine. You must take time out and reach out to friends and other supportive people in your community. You might like to seek the help of a counsellor or find a support group.
Seek out professional help:
Support and professional interventions can significantly slow down and alleviate the effects of traumatic events.
It’s essential to learn about trauma or PTSD to understand why it happens, how it’s treated, and what you can do to help. Dealing with trauma and the shifts in family life are stressful. Talking and dealing with your trauma with the help of trained therapy and remembering to take care of yourself makes it easier to show up fully for your loved one. While you are providing unconditional support to your loved ones, ensure that you psycho-educate them about PTSD and motivate them to seek professional help for themselves as dealing with trauma with the right coping mechanisms is essential.