How to help a trauma survivor

Image credit: @tajfrancis

There are two types of people in this world; those that have experienced trauma, and those who have not. I say this because when you are a trauma survivor surrounded by people who are not, it can feel overwhelmingly lonely. 

It can feel like no one will ever be able to truly understand how much you’re suffering. And sometimes, you just wish that someone could. Perhaps it’s the hope that if someone else could truly experience your fear, agony, anger, depression, and the vivid memories that shock you right out of the shell of your skin, then it would somehow make your trauma more bearable. Because then you wouldn’t have to suffer it alone.

We don’t always want to have to teach you about our trauma, our symptoms, our struggle.

I remember at a time, all I wanted was for someone to truly understand how much I was hurting. How much the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was keeping me from living a normal life. How afraid I was to go to sleep because the past would bleed into my dreams and I’d wake crying, shaking, frozen, and full of jarring emotions. But no matter how much those around me loved me, I often felt that they didn’t know how to help me. And I didn’t know how to help them help me either.

If you’re a trauma survivor wondering how you can get the people in your life to be there for you better, or you’re someone close to a trauma survivor that feels lost when it comes to supporting them, this condensed guide may help you get/give what is needed.

Get educated

Sometimes trauma survivors don’t want to explain everything that’s going on inside of them. It’s tiring and painful enough just experiencing it. We don’t always want to have to teach you about our trauma, our symptoms, our struggle. It seems selfish, but when you’re in the midst of trauma suffering, just being alive is enough of a task. 

Google is your friend. Find out what kind of symptoms are commonly experienced by survivors that have gone through the same kind of trauma your person has. That way you can gain a better understanding of what they’re experiencing and how best to help them, without forcing them to expend emotional energy they don’t have.

I still have panic attacks when I read stories about women that have been emotionally/physically abused.

Going out of your way to understand how they’re feeling is also a way of validating their experiences. This can be invaluable for trauma survivors that have been gaslit or victim-blamed.  

Trauma can resurface repeatedly

Healing is not linear. Years can go by and suddenly something you thought your person was totally healed from is experienced as vividly as the day it occurred. Don’t get despondent or frustrated, this is normal.

Don’t think that everything you’ve done to help them thus far has proved ineffective, or not good enough. Trauma is a dormant demon that can arise even when the survivor has fully healed. Years later, I still have night terrors out of nowhere. I still have panic attacks when I read stories about women that have been emotionally/physically abused, or sexually assaulted.

The time between these triggers normally gets longer, but sometimes there are periods when the trauma arises more intensely than usual. Be sensitive of dates, seasons, stories, films, places, and experiences that may be triggering for your person.

Don’t victim blame

When I told my family I was raped, one of them asked me if I was sure. No matter how hard the story is to believe, NEVER ask your person if they are sure about the truth of their story. Only a psychopath would make that shit up. A lot of the time victims blame themselves for what happened, don’t make it worse by questioning the validity of their traumatic experience.

It is never their fault. They couldn’t have done something different to change what happened, so don’t ask questions or make statements that question the validity of their feelings. Do not make them feel like they had any part to play in inflicting this trauma upon themselves.

Physical touch can be triggering.

Listen, don’t probe

Trauma is often the hardest thing in the world for people to talk about. Speaking about it can make it all too real and induce panic attacks, bouts of depression, and suicidal tendencies. If they want to speak to you about it, just listen. Don’t ask leading questions or probe them for details. Just listen.

Ask for consent before initiating physical contact

Just because you are their closest person and have always had physical access to them, doesn’t mean this will still be the case while they are suffering the effects of trauma. 

Ask before you make physical contact. Don’t withdraw entirely, but base your actions on their cues. Make it apparent that you really don’t mind giving them as much physical space as they need, and that you won’t feel offended.

Physical touch can be triggering. Understand that it has nothing to do with you and give your person what they need willingly, without frustration or resentment.

Image credit: @wearetheevidence

Help them enjoy life again

Trauma survivors often have to relearn relaxation and enjoyment. Gently coax them back into activities that brought them happiness and peace before their trauma. Make them a playlist of their favourite songs. Take them out for their favourite meal. Gift them a book by an author they love. Take them to art galleries, for walks on the promenade, or wherever their places of joy might be. 

Sometimes they won’t be in the best mood when you take them out/do something for them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate your care. Nothing you do to help them will go unnoticed, even if it might not be exactly the right choice for them at the time. Keep trying, but don’t force anything.

Suggest support groups

Sometimes the best thing to do for your person is find them the support they’re too drained to look for themselves. Support groups, therapists, counsellors; share resources with them that you think might help them, but don’t be pushy. Let them choose what suits them best, and whether or not they’d like to do it alone. Always offer your accompaniment. It helps to know someone you love is willing to be at your side when entering a vulnerable space.

Make sure to keep tabs on their mental health as best as you can.

Give them space

You might think being with them, or in contact with them, 24/7 is the best course of action, but everyone processes trauma differently. Keep checking in, but give them the space they need to process their trauma. Don’t distance yourself entirely, or feel saddened if they ask for space.

An invitation is always greatly appreciated. It will make your person feel cared for, like what they’re going through isn’t a burden/reason for loved ones to avoid them. Even when you know they’re going to say no, invite them anyway.

Watch out for warning signs

Trauma can often lead to PTSD, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. Make sure to keep tabs on your person’s mental health as best as you can. Check on them even when they’re pushing everyone around them away. Never. Give. Up. On. Them.

I know it isn’t easy to help someone who seems like they don’t want help, but if you continue being consistent with your love and care, you might just be the difference between your person making it out alive, or not at all.

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