Trauma can profoundly impact a person’s life, and your support can make a significant difference in their healing process. However, supporting a loved one recovering from a traumatic experience can be challenging and requires sensitivity, empathy, and understanding. Watching them struggle with the lingering effects of the event and not knowing how to help can also feel daunting and frustrating.
Here are some ways to support someone recovering from trauma:
- Listen without judgment: Create a safe and non-judgmental space for the person to share their feelings, experiences, and thoughts. Be patient and let them express themselves at their own pace. Trauma deeply impacts a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth, so questioning or judging them can cause deep hurt and even a sense of betrayal. In this context, harsh truths can wait, and now is the time for more supportive, encouraging conversations
- Believe them: Trauma survivors often face disbelief or skepticism about their experiences due to social stigma or the way that memories of traumatic experiences are stored in the brain. Show your support by validating their feelings and acknowledging the impact of their trauma.
- Educate yourself about trauma: Learn about the wide ranging effects of trauma, helpful coping mechanisms, and recovery strategies. This knowledge will help you understand what the person is going through and how to support them better.
- Respect their boundaries: It is particularly important to respect the boundaries of a trauma survivor, as the experience can often feature a boundary violation that results in intense fear or distress. Re-affirming your loved one’s right to a sense of safety and autonomy, through everyday things like respecting their choices, boundaries, and expectations of you, is a powerful way to help them see the world as a safe place again. Be understanding and avoid pressuring them into discussing their trauma or engaging in uncomfortable activities.
- Avoid triggering topics or situations: Be mindful of potential triggers and avoid discussing or exposing the person to situations that might retraumatize them. Triggers can include a wide range of things, such as sounds, smells, names, words, songs, and feelings.
- Be patient: Healing from trauma takes time and can be non-linear. Be patient and supportive, and understand that recovery might involve ups and downs.
- Encourage self-care: Support the person in taking care of their physical and emotional well-being. Encourage them to engage in activities they enjoy, and practice self-compassion. Encouraging self-care also means supporting the mindset that we are all worthy of rest, regardless of how much work we feel we have done. After a traumatic experience, our energy levels, social battery, tolerance, and motivation can change.
- Offer practical help: Help with everyday tasks or responsibilities that the person might be struggling with due to the trauma. This could include cooking, cleaning, or running errands.
- Avoid minimizing their experience: Refrain from comparing their trauma to others’ or saying things like, “it could have been worse.” Each person’s experience is unique, and minimizing their pain can be detrimental to their recovery.
- Be available but not intrusive: Being a supportive friend to someone recovering from trauma means letting them know you are there for them whenever they need to talk or seek support, but avoid pressuring them to open up if they’re not ready. If you notice yourself asking questions about the trauma, try to reflect on whether you’re asking questions for their benefit or yours. It is natural to seek information that will help you build an idea of what the person went through, however
- Engage in activities together: Participate in activities that the person enjoys and that may help distract them from their trauma or create positive experiences. Try to be respectful of the fact that their hobbies may have changed. Trauma can disrupt the nervous system, making certain activities stressful or triggering.
- Be non-reactive to their emotions: It’s normal for trauma survivors to experience intense and overwhelming emotions. Trauma can have a long-term impact on our ability to regulate our emotions, which can be confusing, frustrating, and even scary. It can cause a sense of self-blame or shame for not being able to cope with the things you once could or worry that you are becoming “too much” for those around you. Try to recognize emotional dysregulation as a symptom of trauma, even if the triggers or upsetting situations seem unrelated to the trauma itself. Be supportive and non-reactive, and allow the person to express their feelings without judgment and without the fear that their heightened emotional state will drive you away.
- Check in regularly: Regular check-ins allow survivors to express their feelings, seek comfort, and share their healing journey. It can strengthen the bond between you, reassure them they’re not alone, and promote the sense that you are reliable and trustworthy. Regularly check in on the person’s well-being, but be sensitive to their preferences for the frequency of these check-ins.
- Encourage their strengths and progress: Celebrate the person’s achievements and strengths in their healing journey. Recognize their progress, no matter how small it may seem. Make sure to encourage them in moments of struggle or relapse, too, though. Trauma recovery is not a linear process. Huge strides forward one week might be followed by setbacks and challenges the next. Remaining a steady and stable source of support and encouragement throughout the journey can be greatly comforting for the survivor.
- Encourage professional help: Offer support in seeking professional therapy or counseling. Trauma recovery often benefits from the guidance of trained therapists who are experienced in trauma treatment. Researching treatment options and helping your loved one explore the different options can make this process seem less daunting.
Remember that supporting someone through trauma recovery can be emotionally challenging. It’s essential to seek your support system or professional help if you feel overwhelmed or unsure how to proceed. Ultimately, the most crucial aspect of supporting someone recovering from trauma is to be present, understanding, non-judgmental, and compassionate throughout their healing process.