Supporting Someone through Trauma: 4 Important Tools

Woman hugging her friendWhen a friend or loved one has been impacted by a traumatic event, it can be distressing and confusing to stand with them and watch them try to deal with the effects of such an experience. It can also feel overwhelming to the person trying to help or support when they don’t feel as if they have the tools necessary to respond to the traumatized person.

If you are wondering what you can do to be supportive to a person dealing with a recent trauma, here are some places to start:

  1. Listen. Telling our stories is powerful and healing for human beings. It helps us to make sense of what has happened, to consolidate our memories of the events, and to feel heard and supported. Doing what we sometimes call “active listening” can be really important to survivors of trauma. This means devoting your attention to the act of listening carefully—without judging, interrupting, or making self-referencing comments. Asking questions is, however, an important part of active listening, as it shows that you are interested in getting the details right.
  2. Don’t judge. Try to assume a stance of curiosity about the person’s story. Judgments are a heavy burden that trauma survivors become all too familiar with. Don’t add to this burden. Often, the person is struggling with internal judgments about the trauma and their reaction to it. You can help by simply supporting the person without implying that they should (or shouldn’t) have done something differently, that they did the right thing or the wrong thing, or that there was anything about the event(s) that was good or bad. The words in italics are words to avoid when discussing with a survivor the event(s) they are dealing with and/or how the person is coping in the aftermath.
  3. Don’t pathologize. It is normal for human beings to feel grief, pain, rage, despair, and/or fear after a traumatic incident. Often, people will work through this on their own after a period of time, come to understand the event(s) in a way that works for them, and resume their typical engagement in everyday life. Give them a few weeks—don’t label what they are going through or make it sound like an “illness” or “disability.” As therapists, we don’t view having this response itself as problematic; we start to see a problem only if, after a couple of months, these responses are still interfering with the person’s ability to engage in daily life. In that case, you may wish to speak with the person about finding some professional support, but do so in a nonjudgmental way that is open to and hears the person’s thoughts about this.
  4. Take care of yourself. Being a support person for a person dealing with deep pain can in itself be distressing and overwhelming. Sometimes this can even result in what we call “secondary traumatization”—feeling the effects of the trauma yourself. Give yourself permission to do the little things that nurture you and bring joy as you provide support to a person in distress. Be mindfully aware of your own level of distress, energy, and need for support. Learn a little bit about normal trauma responses (such as avoidance, arousal, and intrusions) so that you can understand what is happening. If you feel it might be helpful, you might consider seeking professional support for your own needs and keep yourself grounded. Give yourself permission to feel distressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, or confused, and take care of your own needs about this so that you are able to continue to be supportive when you would like to without making the trauma-affected person the target of your own pain or frustration—this can be a difficult cycle that causes more pain for everyone.

Navigating the aftermath of a traumatic event can be difficult for everyone affected—those directly involved in the event and those in the position of continuing to love and support people through their pain and grief. These tools are a place to start for those of you wondering how best to support a traumatized person. It is important to remember that being such a support person is a wonderful gift and a difficult place to be, and to give yourself the permission to struggle with it, to care for yourself and your needs during this time, and to seek your own support and care when you need it.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, therapist in Boulder, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • LaShun

    LaShun

    June 20th, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    Is it normal to feel guilty for wanting to go back to normal again? I feel like if I live in the pain that he feels all the time then I am going to get swallowed by it… but then I want him to know that I can understand what he is feeling but I don’t think that this means that I have to be miserable too but that is how he makes me feel, like I don’t care if I don’t get all depressed with him. I refuse to live like that, and I may not have any control over him but I do for myself. What good does it do him if he doesn’t have someone (me) there to pick him up?

  • campbell

    campbell

    June 20th, 2014 at 1:14 PM

    My natural instinct is to talk, not listen.
    How can I, short of stuffing a sock in my mouth, really take the time to listen to other people without always interjecting and try to get my two cents worth in?

  • Whitney

    Whitney

    June 21st, 2014 at 5:52 AM

    ahhh judgement… who would even want to share anything with you if you make them feel like they are being judged or that the feelings that they are having in reaction to something are not valid? You have to let people know that you are concerned about them and that you take to heart the things that they are saying to you. NO one should be made to feel like they should just be able to get past something or to move on. Once something traumatic has happened to you, then the ability to do that goes away and you live every day often reliving that which has happened to you. We are there to be supportinve, not to make them feel worse.

  • Zane

    Zane

    June 21st, 2014 at 1:00 PM

    If you have a tendency to make others problems your own then this can be a very dangerous situation for you to be in too. You may not have been the one who was traumatized but that does not mean that you won’t then continue to feel that same pain that the victim feels.

  • Reeny

    Reeny

    June 23rd, 2014 at 4:09 AM

    When my sister figured out that she was molested many years ago by our uncle it was so horrible for the whole family to deal with. She was the one living with the primary pain and the memories but the rest of us were feeling so much guilt about not having known and not having stopped it that it literally almost tore us apart. We couldn’t be strong fer her because we were all dealing with our own issues as a result of the abuse. There was a lot of pain but also a lot of anger that ended up being misdirected at one another, and looking back I wish that we could have spent that time more thoughtfully helping her and addressing her needs instead of all getting so wrapped up in what this had done to us.

  • donny

    donny

    June 25th, 2014 at 2:48 PM

    The thing about judging others is that you don’t know when you are going to be facing the very same situation that they are. Be careful about that or it will always come back to bite you.

  • JOY

    JOY

    June 26th, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    I hurt when those aorund me hurt so there is this natural tendency to wnat to take on the problems of the workd even though I know that I am no help to anyone when I do that.

  • Allie

    Allie

    June 28th, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    It is so hard when you want to have the right words to say and the right things to do, but what they have been through is so much bigger and more difficult than anything that you have ever encountered.

    You have to learn that there is a difference between being helpful and being informative. Help them find the information that they need so that they can get help, but make it a point to support them as a friend when they need that shoulder to lean on. If you don’t know all of the answers that’s alright, it’s okay to point them in another direction for the serious answers. But to be there for them for that guidance and that support is going to be a huge blessing for many people.

  • alisa

    alisa

    August 17th, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    I learn also from mistakes people have made with me when I have been through a trauma. I try not to repeat it when others around me have been traumatized. I am planning on volunteering at hospice after I finish my own support group for the loss of a spouse. I already volunteer at a mental health facility. This article was very helpful.

  • Julie

    Julie

    October 26th, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    Give them a few weeks? Wow. Clearly the person who wrote this never experienced a traumatic event- the kind that shakes the ground you walk on where you are forever changed.

  • Cat

    Cat

    October 27th, 2014 at 2:47 AM

    Totally with you. My post is waiting approval, this attitude stops people like me dealing and healing and makes us feel abnormal. Decades so far… Still no further forward because of being judged…

  • Cat

    Cat

    October 27th, 2014 at 2:44 AM

    I can’t believe in here the time frame is specified. Surely the healing process depends on the type, length and circumstances of the trauma? It’s also fluid and can come and go over decades not weeks! I must admit I feel insulted, I’ve only recently been diagnosed following trauma from childhood and during my adult life – it’s something I have to live with every day and hide from others – talking is not easy, professional help is not readily available I’ve waited several months on three rotations in the last 10 years for therapy – plus it doesn’t always help. Sometimes the best defense we have is not attack it’s retreat and cover – please don’t assume that it takes weeks and can be healed. Sometimes it can’t. Sometimes you just need a hug and an ear without comment or judgement, and sometimes you just need to be left alone to deal on your own terms. Understanding is the key and asking what the affected person needs, not assuming. It takes all my energy to work when I’m feeling most vulnerable, there are times I can’t see anyone outside work because the effort leads to panic attacks and making a fool of myself. My ptsd anxiety and depression come and go in cycles, have don’t for decades – I’ve learnt to hide myself to most people when this happens because of the few week mentality of others! There is a massive stigma attached to anything to do with the mind, so most of us hide our pain. Did it ever occur to you that it never goes away and the few week subjects are hiding it from you? Any therapist worth their phd wouldn’t put time frames on trauma… Sorry I’m so angry as this attitude has contributed to my own pain being so bad at times its easier to ignore than to deal…

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