It’s not always easy to know how to help after a traumatic event, but there are many ways you can support your loved one.
It can be difficult seeing your loved one experiencing the effects of trauma. Not knowing how to help them can interfere with giving the much-needed social support that loved ones can provide.
Whether the person affected by trauma is a spouse or partner, family member, or friend, equipping yourself with the correct information can be the first step to helping your loved one.
Trauma is a prevalent and almost universal occurrence. According to the Sidran Institute, around 70% of adults in the United States experience a traumatic event in their lifetimes, and around 20% of them go on to develop symptoms that meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Trauma isn’t just about the traumatic event that occurred but also the response to it. There can be a sense of helplessness when seeing your loved one deal with trauma.
Below is a list of tips you can use to help support your loved one after a traumatic event.
Get informed about the effects of trauma
Although the vast amount of information can feel overwhelming, the first step in helping your loved one is to get informed about trauma. A general understanding of what trauma is and how it can impact lives can go a long way in helping.
While you don’t need to know everything about trauma to help your loved one, you need to be informed.
The term “trauma” doesn’t just mean PTSD. Trauma is often used as an umbrella term that can refer to the traumatic event itself, extremely high levels of general stress in response to an event, or PTSD (a specific set of experiences in response to an event). Some people recover quickly from a traumatic event, but others may have lasting difficulties.
The American Psychological Association (APA) describes trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, sexual assault, or natural disaster.
Complex trauma refers to a particular set of symptoms resulting from what may often be multiple events, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. The stress of complex trauma can negatively affect a person’s relationships, work life, and physical health.
Severe traumatic experiences can cause the condition PTSD. According to the
After experiencing a traumatic event, people may have different emotional responses. Some of the more common responses to trauma are:
- nightmares, which can involve a common theme from the event or associated feelings
- distressing and intrusive memories
- flashbacks, which are relatively rare
- increased feelings of anxiousness
- self-blame, or blaming others for the event
- avoiding things that remind you of trauma, such as places or people
- difficulty concentrating
- dissociation, where they seem to withdraw or shut down
- sleep disturbances
- difficulty feeling happiness
If you notice these responses in your loved one, know that this is normal. Receiving the right support from a therapist can help reduce their impact.
After a trauma, people may experience triggers, which can be anything that reminds them of the event and results in an emotional response or PTSD symptom.
Sometimes, triggers can set off memories and physical symptoms where your loved one relives the event. Triggers may not always be evident to others, as triggers tend to elicit internal experiences, like emotional or physical discomfort.
Support them by listening
Try to support your loved one with active listening.
Active listening is less about responding and more about attentively focusing on what’s shared. Listening to your loved one without judgment or pressure can go a long way in helping them.
Support their need for space
After a traumatic event, it’s common to lose a sense of safety. Your loved one might feel anxious and be on guard. Be mindful of their personal space. Avoid touching, like giving hugs, without their expressed permission.
Space can also refer to emotional space, which can be very important for supporting a loved one. An example of emotional space would be not pressuring them to speak about the experience of the event or their PTSD reactions but letting them know you’re there if they need you.
Support them by being present
If you’re present without any expectations about how they respond to triggers or express their emotions, you can offer your support and be attentive to any emotional or behavioral changes with your loved one. This also allows you to learn what their triggers (if any) are. Allow space for their pain.
Initially, after a traumatic event, a person might not know what they need. It’s best to avoid assuming you know what the person needs. If unsure, it’s best just to ask. An excellent way to be supportive is to practice being patient.
Offer help with routine tasks
Being supportive can extend past talking. A common symptom of PTSD is difficulty concentrating, so you can offer to help with daily tasks, like preparing meals, shopping, or cleaning.
It’s essential to maintain your wellness and self-care practices while supporting your loved one’s needs. Trauma affects the person involved in the traumatic event, but the impact can extend to loved ones.
Secondary trauma is when you’re experiencing emotional distress from witnessing or having knowledge of a loved one’s traumatic event. It’s important to remember to look after yourself while caring for others.
While you may have good intentions, sometimes certain comments can hurt more than help.
You’re not expected to say everything perfectly. The goal is to support your loved one by reassuring safety and trust.
It can help to actively remind your loved one that you’re there for them if they need you, but without pressuring them.
Below are some suggestions of what to say and avoid when talking with someone who has experienced trauma.
Consider saying something like the following:
- “I’m here for you.”
- “How can I help you right now?”
- “Thank you for trusting me to share this.”
- “I believe you” or “I believe in you.”
- “I’m here to listen.”
- “You are loved.”
Consider avoiding the following comments:
- Dismissive comments, like “It wasn’t that bad” or “Just move on.”
- “You’re lucky,” “Look on the bright side,” or, “It could’ve been worse.”
- Assumptions, like “I know how you feel” or “It’s all in your head.”
- Judgmental statements, like “You shouldn’t have done that” or “You shouldn’t be angry.”
It can be challenging to see your loved one deal with trauma. You might feel that it’s your job to take their pain away or “cure” them, but as humans, we simply can’t do that, no matter how hard we try.
After experiencing trauma, many people benefit from seeking professional mental health support.
Some people who experience symptoms after a traumatic event may find that the symptoms resolve on their own with little intervention. While the emotional responses noted above are common, it might be time for help from a therapist who specializes in trauma if they last more than a few months after the event.
Therapists with a specialty in trauma have particular skill sets and approaches to therapy that can help people who are experiencing post-traumatic stress.
Some types of therapy have been specifically developed for people with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
The following approaches or modalities have been shown to have the most promise for people who’ve experienced trauma:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
- prolonged exposure (PE)
- trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT) for children
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
A 2021 study indicated that meditation promoted emotional regulation. This pathway started with increased awareness of their emotions, involved accepting them and letting go of their feelings, and ended with emotional growth and improved self-regulation.
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. Remembering to take care of yourself makes it easier to show up fully for your loved one.
Listed below is additional information on trauma and some helpful support resources.
Trauma support resources
The American Psychological Association (APA) and National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offer the following information and resources:
- PTSD Treatment: Information for Patients and Families | APA
Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Disasters and Other Traumatic Events: What Parents, Rescue Workers, and the Community Can Do | NIMH
Support groups can be an excellent resource for those who’ve experienced trauma or who are helping a loved one who has:
- Safe Support Groups | CPTSDfoundation.org
- Trauma Survivors Network | Peer Support Groups
- Find Support Groups | Mental Health America
Resources to find a trauma-informed therapist:
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