Know Someone Who's Coping With Trauma? Here's How To Support Them
What makes an event traumatic? Historically, trauma was believed to be a result of going to war and reserved for soldiers who presented with a collection of symptoms labeled as PTSD. However, using a diagnosis to help us understand the phenomenon of trauma is misleading, as many people experience trauma and post-traumatic stress without meeting criteria for a psychological disorder.
Current events have opened the door to a broader conversation about trauma and how many of us are exposed to it. Recent studies estimate that 70 percent of Americans have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives. Despite this, trauma can still feel mystifying. I offer my patients this explanation: Trauma is any event or experience that overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope and shapes our beliefs or behaviors going forward. Even more simply, it is anything that causes an individual deep distress during and/or after the event has taken place.
With this in mind, we begin to understand that trauma can encompass a wide range of human experiences. Some may be more familiar, like a breakup, one's parents' divorce, or various forms of developmental trauma. Others may be more shocking, such as natural disasters, major accidents, assault, and interpersonal violence. Ultimately, trauma is less about what happened and more about one’s subjective experience of it.
If someone close to you has been affected by trauma, particularly a severe or recent event, it is normal to feel confused over the best ways to support them. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution or treatment, there are some small and doable steps you can take to support a friend or loved one:
Humans naturally seek out meaning as a way to make sense of the world. The trouble with trauma is that survivors often ascribe false meaning to what the experience means about them. Many people blame themselves for what happened or feel ashamed at how they reacted during the event. Reassure your loved one that biologically, we cannot choose how to respond during a traumatic event. When faced with life-threatening or other traumatic experiences, access to our rational, thinking brain is blocked. Instead, we enter survival mode, triggering self-protective reactions known as fight, flight, or freeze. These responses are involuntary and adaptive yet completely out of our conscious control.
Having and using one’s support network has continuously proved to be one of the biggest predictors of how a person responds to trauma. In addition to rebuilding trust and meeting our socio-emotional needs, a positive support system gives our brain a "green light" for safety. Dr. Stephen Porges, an esteemed neuroscientist, demonstrates that through smiling, playfulness, laughter, and even a soft or melodic tone of voice, our brain’s social engagement system gets reactivated. This is the part of our brain that lets us know that our environment is once again safe and secure. By simply being present and attuned to your loved one, you are providing them with what they lacked during the traumatic event.
3. Restore choice.
A hallmark of trauma is the experience of feeling helpless or powerless. Often these feelings persist even after the event is over and the danger has passed. One way to counteract this is to help restore choice to the survivor. You can do this on a small scale by being mindful of the language you use when offering support to someone. For example, when making plans with your loved one, give options of where to meet or how to spend the day together. Try not to make assumptions about what the person needs and instead ask what would feel best for them. If they don’t know exactly what they need, that’s all right too; the fact that you asked is itself a powerful intervention.
4. Reduce uncertainty.
In addition to traumatic events typically being sudden and unexpected, they can affect the part of the brain responsible for making decisions, forming memories, and exercising judgment. Therefore, someone who recently went through a traumatic event might feel confused or overwhelmed by ordinary tasks. They also may have anxiety around uncertainty or anything that seems outside of their control. Reduce some of the uncertainty your loved one feels in small ways by helping them anticipate "what’s next" or answering procedural questions. Even helping someone get to an appointment or preparing them for what to expect when they arrive can provide relief.
The most important thing to remember is that everybody responds to trauma differently. People may seek out a variety of resources in their process of healing, and what is right for one person might not be right for the next person. Some find comfort in books (my personal favorite on trauma is The Body Keeps the Score) while others prefer exercise, travel, or their version of self-care. Finding a trauma-informed therapist with whom you feel comfortable is also a great resource for anyone personally or vicariously affected by trauma and post-traumatic stress.
Want to learn about the upside of trauma? Here's everything you need to know.