How to Help a Loved One Through Trauma
By: Natalie Rice-Thorp, Ph.D. | September 29, 2023
It can be difficult to see your loved one experience the effects of trauma, and it’s not always easy to know how to help. You may struggle to find the right thing to do or say or worry that you’ll say something that might make them feel worse. Know that there is so much you can do to support someone who’s experienced trauma. You won’t be able to take their pain away, but by giving them your time and providing emotional support, you can make a huge difference in their recovery. This article will provide you with the information you need to support your loved one and help them heal from trauma.
The Effects of Trauma
Trauma isn’t just about the traumatic event that occurred but also the response to it. Responses to trauma vary, ranging from recovering quickly to experiencing lasting effects. If your loved one was exposed to death, threatened death, serious physical injury, or sexual violence, they are likely experiencing common responses to trauma such as nightmares, intrusive thoughts, heightened arousal, irritability, emotional numbing, self-blame and guilt, difficulty concentrating, and avoiding things that remind them of the trauma. When these symptoms are pronounced and ongoing, it may be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is common for people with PTSD to struggle at home, with friends, and at work or school. My clients with PTSD symptoms often withdraw from people or lash out when a loved one attempts to provide comfort.
Do You Feel Like You Are Walking on Eggshells?
Irritability and anger are common reactions when someone is trying to cope with a traumatic event. You may notice that your loved one is easily irritated by seemingly small things. There are a number of reasons for this, including a heightened fight-or-flight and freeze response, and the effects of disrupted or little sleep.
After a traumatic event, it’s common to lose a sense of safety. Your loved one might feel anxious and be on guard. It’s important to know that there are multiple layers underneath your loved one’s irritability, and the underlying layer is often fear.
For example, you and your partner walk into a store and the person ahead of you does not hold the door open for you. You may feel mildly irritated, but your partner is seething mad and insists that you leave the store immediately. You think “it wasn’t that big of a deal.” Your partner might think “They saw me approach and let the door slam in my face on purpose! We could have been hurt! People don’t care about anyone but themselves! People can’t be trusted to follow the rules! This is how people get hurt, this is how people die.”
To your partner, the incident was not a small thing. It was a daily example of their worst fear come true, confirmation that the world is a very dangerous place, and they are utterly vulnerable and helpless to protect themselves or their loved ones. In these cases, telling your loved one that “it’s not that big of a deal” can feel invalidating and will likely only increase their irritability. Instead, gently allow them to calm themselves down by giving them space and time. This will likely take longer than you might think.
When your loved one is calm, invite them to talk about what they are thinking and feeling. Practice active listening, which is less about responding, and more about being attentive and focused. Listen to your loved one without judgement or pressure and give them emotional space so they don’t feel pressured to speak about the trauma itself unless they feel ready.
Is Your Loved One is Easily Startled?
Your loved one may avoid crowded and loud places, including places they once enjoyed such as concerts or shopping centers. You may notice that they position themselves with their back against a wall and face the door whenever possible. After someone has been through a traumatic event, it is common for their nervous systems to operate on high alert. You might experience this to a much less degree when you watch a scary movie or look over the edge from a tall building. This is the body’s natural response to a perceived threat or danger, preparing yourself to survive whatever comes next.
After experiencing a traumatic event, people are often more easily and intensely startled, and it takes them longer to calm back down. Avoid behaviors such as coming up behind your loved one and startling them (even in a joking manner), making loud sudden noises, or touching them without their expressed permission.
You May Worry This Will Never End
It is common to suggest that your loved one try to put their traumatic past behind them, or to “get over it,” “try not to think about it,” and “move on.” As well intended as this may be, your loved one can feel invalidated, misunderstood, and alone. Your loved one surely wants to forget the trauma ever happened, but they are unable to do so. The harder they try to avoid thinking and feeling about the trauma, the stronger and more intrusive the traumatic memories can be.
Tell your loved one that you will be there for them during their recovery, no matter how long it takes. Reassure them that healing is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. Your loved one needs time and space for their pain in order to heal.
Anniversaries Can Be Especially Difficult
Even if your loved one may not seem to consciously attend to the anniversary, date, season of the year, or time of day that the traumatic event occurred, their system may still go into extra high alert mode during that time.
Avoid planning potentially stressful events or projects around the anniversary of a trauma.
What About “Triggers?”
The dilemma of avoidance. Humans naturally attempt to avoid danger. Unfortunately, avoidance is not an effective long-term strategy for dealing with thoughts, feelings, memories, and reminders of traumatic events. It can be hard to balance being sensitive to your loved one’s preference to avoid reminders of the trauma, without inadvertently making things worse by becoming isolated.
A professional mental health professional who specializes in treating trauma can help your loved one develop skills to gradually confront the reminders of the trauma.
Therapy Can Help
After experiencing trauma, many people benefit from seeking professional therapy from Psychologists who have specialized training in the treatment of PTSD. There are several empirically-supported treatment methods known to be effective at reducing PTSD symptoms and helping people get reconnected with their lives. Examples of these treatments are Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), both of which are available at Therapy Changes. These treatments are helpful for military and civilian traumas, if the traumatic event happened a month ago or decades ago, and even if there are multiple traumas.
I personally find it very rewarding to use PE and CPT with clients who are struggling to cope with PTSD symptoms and need a personalized path to healing from their trauma. I help clients and their families find their way back to their lives and improve communication and intimacy.
We know it’s not always easy to ask for help, and we honor the courage that it takes to do so. No one should have to suffer alone – help and guidance is available for you, and your loved one.