8 tips to help support a loved one who has experienced trauma.

Jason Brien.

Everyone can struggle to support a loved one through ptsd and trauma especially if it is their first time doing so. Other peoples pain, distress and discomfort often triggers our own discomfort, vulnerabilities and insecurities which often leads us to act in ways which are really designed to alleviate our own discomfort. It requires real skill, empathy and emotional intelligence to overcome that which makes us uncomfortable so that we can provide a supportive, loving, safe and non-judgemental space for our loved one who has experienced ptsd or trauma. Here are 8 ways that you can help and support your loved one through their challenging experiences.

1. Know thy self;

This is about emotional intelligence. The better you know yourself and your vulnerabilities, insecurities and triggers, the better the position you will be in to support your loved one. Supporting people through ptsd and trauma can be extremely time consuming and at times frustrating. All we want to do is alleviate our loved ones pain and suffering but nothing we do seems to help. This is where we need to monitor our own anger, frustration and helplessness lest we say or do something out of spite and anger. It is also hard to be empathetic, caring and understanding when we are frustrated or feeling helpless.

2. Recognise that no two people experience traumatic events in the same way.

This tip is important if you don’t want to unintentionally invalidate your loved ones trauma responses. You may have experienced a similar traumatic experience but saying things like “I experienced that as well and I’m not crying all day” is likely to make matters worse for your loved one. Make a conscious effort to really try and understand your loved ones trauma experience through their eyes and with their language. If they say they felt terrified, reflect back the word terrified rather than changing their language and experience with “Oh so you felt a little bit scared”?

3. Avoid toxic positivity;

The line between encouragement and optimism and toxic positivity is a fine one. It is important that we encourage our loved ones not to fall too deep down the ‘negative’ rabbit hole but at the same time we don’t want to be ramming toxic positivity down their throat. Rather than saying something like “Just get over it already” or “Stop being so negative. Things are not that bad” try being encouraging and supportive by saying something like “I have known you to be a strong person and I believe that with the right help and support you can begin to start working through your challenges”.

4. Encourage your loved one to seek professional help.

This is just basic common sense. If your loved one broke their arm, you would encourage them to see a dr. If their car broke down, you would encourage them to see a mechanic. Whilst mental health professionals can’t fix your loved ones ptsd or trauma per se, they can assist your loved one to learn new skills and techniques which can help them along the road to symptom management and recovery. Understandably, access to, and quality of, mental health professionals vary from country to country but with modern technology it is relatively easy to access the services of mental health professionals who reside in a country other than your own.

5. Learn to understand your loved ones ptsd and trauma triggers.

Your loved one may not always have the ability to communicate the how’s and why’s of why they are upset or distressed at any given moment. Someone who has been physically or sexually assaulted for example may recoil and become quite distressed at your innocent attempts to physically console them. This recoil and distress is most likely an unconscious trauma response which your loved one may not necessarily recognise or understand. You therefore can help your loved one by asking for permission before hugging or otherwise touching/physically consoling them.

6. Provide a safe and non-judgemental space.

Providing a safe place means protecting your loved one from potential further harm and distress. For someone who has been physically or sexually assaulted, having random and unannounced people arriving at the house may be a significant source of distress. Whilst you may not necessarily tell your mail man to stop delivering mail to your house, you may ask your mailman to be mindful not to go banging and yelling at your front door. The same goes for contractors or onsite management/cleaners, etc. Providing a non-judgemental space requires that all people who interact with your loved one are non-judgemental and respectful. It only takes one insensitive comment to send your loved one right back down the rabbit hole.

7. Don’t rush the process.

Trauma and ptsd recovery can take years and complete ‘healing’ may never occur. Just because you are sick of your loved ones ptsd and trauma responses after 2 years doesn’t mean your loved one has to recover quickly solely for your benefit. Whilst it is important to encourage independence, if your loved one is not ready to work part-time or full-time pressuring them by saying things like “I can’t support you financially forever” is not going to help. Instead, encourage exploring working for 4 hours a week or looking at doing some casual volunteer work to help your loved one regain independence and self-efficacy.

8. Consider seeking out ptsd/trauma related support groups.

There is value in properly managed and monitored ptsd and trauma related support groups. I have discussed potential disadvantages of such groups in an earlier post/article titled “A look at support groups for abuse and trauma”. The biggest thing to watch out for is vicarious trauma for either you or your loved one. Vicarious trauma can be the result of listening to and hearing about other peoples traumatic responses. The positive of such support groups is that both you and your loved one may learn new skills and gain new information which could help one or both of you.