HOW CAN YOU HELP YOUR LOVED ONE COPE WITH A TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE?
To be there as support for family or friends when they are coming to terms with a traumatic experience can be daunting. And right at the start, I would like to state that there is nothing that you can really say to make their pain disappear. You cannot try to block their painful memories and more often than not, you feel helpless when you are confronted by their emotional reactions to the traumatic events. You don’t know what to say, you don’t know how to react, and you aren’t sure whether your good intensions of trying to help are the correct way of dealing with the challenges at hand. All you basically want to do is give them the emotional support to help them cope with what they are going through. Please just remember that your support is imperative and that your helping hand can help them adjust back to normal life again following their traumatic event.
The effects of trauma vary. It shatters the victim’s basic assumptions about life, which includes trust in people and safety, even though this is only temporarily. There will be several days with intense emotions of fear or distress where their existence seems to circle around what happened. Some people might become withdrawn or distant and you might see them as becoming detached or numb. They might lack the energy to do things and this may continue for a longer period than you think is reasonable. The victim might seem more irritable and constantly on edge or they might ignore your offers to help. Most often, they usually remember very intense fragments of the event combined with important gaps and this makes them unsure of what really happened.
It is important to mention that VICTIMS do not stay victims. With the right support, love, care and counselling their journey to become SURVIVORS becomes bigger and more tolerable.
So, what can you do to help your family-member or friend?
- Important to establish a normal routine and habits:
It is important for your loved one to start getting back into routine as early as possible. There might be some adjustment to their normal routines but getting to put routines back and sticking to those routines are important. This gives your loved one the feel of control over their own lives and responsibility of getting where they want to be.
- Encourage them to look after themselves:
Encourage your loved one to get plenty of rest, to eat well and to exercise regularly. To make time for relaxation and to cut back on coffee, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol should also be encouraged. Often when going through a trauma, the first thing that gets neglected is eating. Avoid living on take-aways and rather prepare a healthy meal with your loved one where you can create a space to relax and maybe have a more inviting atmosphere to possibly talk about other things.
- Accept and do not judge:
Allow your loved one time and space to express their feelings freely and honestly. It might be hard to hear, unpleasant and harrowing, but the most precious gift that you can give them is space to go through whatever they have to go through without trying to change their minds or situation. You might not agree with what they are saying or how they perceive the world, but this is the time for them to blow off steam and be able to express their emotions and feelings about how they feel at that moment. When the healing process is at a much more advanced stage and the opportunity is right, you can then discuss your views with your loved one in a much more relaxed and less emotionally charged atmosphere.
- Avoid using should… – could… – would…
None of us really know how we are going to react should we go through traumatic events. Therefore, we cannot judge our loved ones on how they reacted before, during or after the event. Eliminate the words “you should have …”, “you could have …” or “you shouldn’t …” from your vocabulary. This could make your loved ones feel judged and under scrutiny or even make them feel less in control. Rather say “I love you”, this reflects your unconditional respect and time, which is much more important than hurting the person more.
- Do not avoid talking about the event:
Allow your loved one to talk about the event. Do not make it a taboo subject of discussion. Initially it is a good avenue to get the shock and hurt out in the open and to let other members of your circle know what has transpired and what the next steps are. Be cautious though not to allow all conversations to circle around the traumatic event. Sometimes it is necessary to gently steer the conversation into another more positive direction.
- Take a back seat:
We are often eager to give out advice and give our little two-cents worth of opinions, but sometimes it is just necessary to sit in silence and letting our loved one feel safe in your presence. You want to scream, cry or complain about the unjust that has been thrust upon your loved one, but that could cause friction between you and your loved one. Rather think what is coming out of your mouth and whether your words are providing comfort and support and not escalating the situation from bad to worse.
- Remember that your little gestures can go a long way:
Help out with little practical tasks and chores. You might want to help getting the kids to school or cooking dinner or even going out to buy some groceries. You might end up doing chores that you are not too happy about doing, like doing the dishes or mowing the lawn, but these things will take pressure off the shoulders of your loved one. This will also allow your loved one the time and energy that they need and be able to use during the recovery process.
- Spend time with your loved one:
Make it obvious to your loved one that you are available and there for them. Make time to be with the person by making a few adjustments to your own schedule to be with them, even if just you sit there in silence. Please do not stress what an inconvenience it is to you and that you might have something better to do with your time, this will only increase their insecurity and distrust.
- Ask before you hug:
Sometimes we just want to wrap our arms around our loved one to comfort them, but that might not be the best thing for them at that moment. Ask before you throw your arms around them, do not startle them by coming from behind with a bear-hug. Respect the space that they may require and be gentle.
- Validate their trauma:
By just acknowledging the pain that your loved one is going through and the event that your loved one has experienced can already assure them that they are not alone. You can simply state that you are okay in holding the pain and that you can see the pain that they are in. You thereby show them that you acknowledge them and that what happened to them is terrible.
- Do not blame your loved one:
Stay away from questions like “Why did you let this happen to you?”, or “Couldn’t you have avoided it or fought him off?” or even “What did you do to invite this evil into your life?”. By asking these questions you reinforce inappropriate guilt and makes your loved one feel like the incident was their fault and that they could have done something differently to prevent it.
- Help them relax and get involved in activities:
Encourage your loved one to start partaking in activities that they generally enjoy going. It might be going to the gym, walking, swimming or racing around a track on a skateboard. These activities burn off the stress chemicals and reduces muscle tension. While your loved ones are doing these activities that they love, it helps them smile or laugh which is a wonderful antidote to stress. Even better, it encourages better sleep after a fun day out in the fresh air. Basically, it comes down to encouraging your loved one to smile and laugh and connecting again with something that they love doing.
Another very helpful tool is to encourage your loved one to start a gratitude journal. This will help them to notice the many things that they can be grateful for. Encourage them to take active steps to counteract the bleak circumstances that they are currently bound in.
- Offer support and a listening ear:
Learn to listen with your heart and not just with your ears. Be present in that moment for them as they work through their feelings. If your loved one has a difficult decision to make at that time, help them by talking to them about the situation and help them to identify different options to these decisions. Once again, sometimes silence is okay and all that your loved one needs is an ear to listen.
- Suggest a support group:
Reach out to your community and do your research on support groups in the area. Scout around for allies that can help your loved one and even yourself come to terms with the events that caused the trauma. Nobody needs to go through recovering from trauma alone and if it is acceptable to your loved one, accompany them to the first meeting of the support group gathering.
- Give them time, patience and space:
People react differently through trauma, but do not take it personally if your loved one is irritable with you and want to be alone. The aftermath of trauma is complex and evolving as our loved one’s struggle to make meaning out of what happened to them. Because irritability and distant behaviour is part of the recovery process, remember that it is only temporary, and it will pass as they recover. Be prepared for emotions to be intense and fluctuating and that you cannot speed up their recovery. Just prepare yourself and be committed to be there for the long haul and not just for the initial shock period. It is important for you to remain a steady and patient source of love throughout the recovery period.
- Admit that you do not understand:
It is okay for you to admit that you do not understand what your loved one is going through if you haven’t gone through something similar. What really matters is that you are there anyway for your loved one, whether you understand or not. You might not know what to do, but you are there and that security of you being there can really help them to feel safe. You can state to your loved one that you cannot imagine what they are going through, but that you are there whenever they are going through a hard time.
- Educate yourself:
The internet is full of very helpful information from sources across the globe. Gain some understanding on the subject and become more informed on the trauma that your loved one is experiencing. By doing this, you build rapport with your loved one that can help them relax and allow them to remember that they are safe, loved and supported.
- Avoid clichés:
Do not fall victim to using clichés. To tell your loved one that they need to be optimistic and not to dwell on the tragic events only shows them that you are not accepting their feelings. Do not dismiss their suffering by telling them to look at the silver lining, that things will get better or to look on the bright side; this will only cause a gap in your relationship. Basically, do not try to talk them out of their reactions. Remember to be accepting of their feelings and allow them to open up when they feel safe enough to do so.
- Do not force them to talk about it:
As a good guide, allow your loved one who is experiencing the trauma to take the lead in telling you what they want you to know. We have to remember that talking and discussing the trauma can be very draining and we need to respect their wishes if they do not want to discuss it. We have to respect their wishes, even if we just sit in silence and being there for in case they want to talk.
- Help to limit news coverage:
If the traumatic event is highly publicized, be there for your loved one as a guard to filter their exposure to the media. Media coverage can retraumatise your loved one and you want to limit this exposure. Your loved one will feel less alone as you are showing them that you are taking notice of their pain and experiences.
- Watch out for warning signs:
Trauma symptoms can increase your loved one’s risk of suicide, depression and addictions. As the severity of their trauma symptoms increase, survivors are at greater risk of suicide, depression and addictions. Do a bit of internet searching or reading journals, thereby educating yourself on the symptoms and warning signals of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Educate yourself on their warning signs and other symptoms that are cause for increased concern.
- Acknowledge their achievements:
When we are in certain situations, we find it difficult to see that things are improving or that we have achieved some goals. You may need to point these accomplishments out to your loved one and help them to see that things are improving and that they have achieved a goal, no matter how small it is.
- Help them to find mental health support:
Help your loved one find mental health support when you notice that their recovery has stalled or if there are other symptoms causing concern. They might display continued disturbed sleeping patterns, or they might be unable to handle intense feelings or could even become more accident-prone. If they increase their use of drugs and alcohol you want to help them find a healthier way on dealing with their trauma.
You might notice that your loved ones are putting their social plans and responsibilities on hold. This is all part of recovery. They will need time to pick up the pieces of their lives, taking the steps of going back to work or taking care of backlogged tasks in their lives. They will take their time to reach out to family and friends and by doing this, they might need extra kindness, acknowledgement, love and care. It is imperative though for you to remain open and understanding while they process their own pain and thoughts. On the anniversaries of their trauma events, it is important for you to acknowledge their emotions and to show them that they are not alone. Here you can talk about how much things have changed for them and what they have accomplished in the time that lapsed.
When caring for a loved one who has experienced trauma, you also want to still be able to look after yourself. If you are experiencing general moodiness, increased anger and fear for yourself, you might want to take time to recharge your own batteries. You will not be able to take care of your loved one if you are falling apart yourself.
American Psychological Association, APA Dictionary of Psychology has the following quote “Traumatic events challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe and predictable place. Trauma that are caused by human behaviour . . . commonly have more psychological impact than those caused by nature.”.
By mentioning all these techniques and tips above, I still want to make it clear that if you feel that neither you nor your loved one is not coping, to please reach out and speak to somebody to give you guidance and support where necessary and where possible. The goal of therapy is to prevent PTS and to help the victims become survivors. Therapy can help by providing a non-judgemental and safe environment where both of you (individually) can openly discuss how the event challenged you and where you can learn new skills on managing trauma, its effects and a way forward. Don’t wait until it is too late.
Thank you very much for reading my blog. I truly hope that it helped somebody, somewhere. Please send any feedback or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and remember to have a look out for a new blog every week.