If you haven’t experienced trauma yourself, it can be difficult navigating how to support a loved one that has. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.
Someone experiencing trauma likely feels shocked, in denial, helpless, and alone. Their reactions can include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, or even physical symptoms such as headaches or nausea.
Finding constructive ways to manage emotions can be very challenging, so having a solid support system is crucial. Here are some ways you can support a loved one after a traumatic experience:
#1. Validate and Normalize Their Feelings
Trauma results from a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. Sometimes all they need to hear is that what happened to them is real.
Keep in mind that you’re normalizing how they feel as a result of the event but not normalizing the bad thing that happened. You’re affirming that their response to the experience is perfectly normal, whether they cry, laugh, feel angry, or feel numb. You can validate them by saying things like:
- “Your experience sounds very scary, and I’m sure it makes you feel anxious.”
- “You are having a tough day today.”
- “It makes sense that you think or feel….”
- “I’m sorry that you experienced this.”
- “It wasn’t your fault.”
- “I’m so glad you’re here.”
- “You didn’t deserve that.”
- “That must be very hard to deal with.”
They may feel like they’re overreacting or that no one believes them. Take time to understand and nurture them. Their experience doesn’t have to make sense to you. Remember, validation is not about agreeing, fixing, placating, or trying to change a person.
#2. Help Them Feel Safe
The most important thing you can do for a loved one is regularly check their physical and mental safety. Immediate safety concerns may include having a place to stay or having access to support whenever or wherever, whether that be you, another trusted family member or friend, or a therapist.
Even if they do have a place to stay, you can help them feel safe at home by ensuring they’re not alone. It would be beneficial to take the extra step to ask how you can help them feel safe or what they need at that moment.
#3. Listen to Them
Sometimes it’s most effective to sit with them and listen. Avoid sharing advice or judgment because that can’t change what happened. Ask how you can help them and thank them for opening up to you. Their ability to talk about their experience is a huge step in the right direction for their healing.
Understand that talking about their trauma can be painful, which could cause them to get very upset. Make sure you choose a time to talk to them when you know you will not be interrupted, feel rushed, or emotionally drained.
#4. Encourage Them to Write
According to a 2003 article from The American Psychological Association, writing about trauma reduces stress. Pick up a journal or diary for your loved one and inspire them to disclose their deepest thoughts and feelings. Writing about their bad experiences is good for their health and can help them process what happened. Aside from writing about the trauma itself, they can write about their plans for the day, new goals, or things they want to try.
#5. Care for Your Mental Health
In order to help your loved one, you also have to look after yourself. Supporting someone who has been through a very difficult event can also take a toll on you. If you’re not in a good mental headspace, then you won’t be able to support them effectively. Reach out to family and friends, attend support group meetings, or seek the help of a therapist as you navigate your loved one’s trauma and your ways of processing it as well.
Things to Keep in Mind
It’s essential to keep in mind that everyone’s methods of coping will look different. Some may try not to think about their trauma and block out painful memories. They may feel sad, numb, or lack the energy to do anything, which leads them to ignore your help, become irritable, or stop participating in social outings. Becoming isolated or cutting themselves off from others will only make matters worse, so the best thing you can do is check-in each day. You have to be sure not to take their reactions personally and remember that they’re doing their best.
If your loved one is having difficulty coping with their trauma and has turned to destructive coping mechanisms, such as drug or alcohol abuse, it may be time to seek treatment. A center for alcohol and drug treatment that also addresses trauma and co-occurring mental health disorders, such as Hawaii Island Recovery, can help your loved one move towards healing.
People respond to traumatic events differently. How they feel is perfectly normal, and it’s important to support your loved one by being there for them and letting them know you care. Help them regain control of what happens to them next and explore options together without pressuring them to take action. It can be challenging to see someone you love struggle with the distress caused by a traumatic event. You may even find yourself worried about their wellbeing and feeling overwhelmed or helpless trying to support their emotions. You must protect your own mental health as you help your loved one navigate their trauma by providing practical support. For more information on how to take care of your mental health while offering support for a loved one experiencing trauma, call Hawaii Island Recovery today at (866) 390-5070. Our rehab in Hawaii is here for you or your loved one every step of the way.