First things first, what actually is trauma? The medical world agrees that there are different types of traumatic stress. According to trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk there is a difference between reacting to a single incident or being exposed to long-term stress such as growing up in an abusive environment.
From accidents, sudden illnesses and emotional loss to natural disaster, sexual or violent assault – the list of what can cause trauma is long but fundamentally centres around helplessness, feeling unsafe and trapped.
Trauma can sneak in through the backdoor or it can hit like a tsunami. However, it is important to keep in mind that it is a perfectly natural response to events that are simply overwhelming. Sometimes trauma is quiet, sometimes loud but it’s certainly always a tough ride.
In his book ‘The Body keeps the Score’ van der Kolk summarises: “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”
Put simply, trauma turns the world as you know it upside down.
Short-term traumatic stress can develop into a long-term mental illness called Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, short PTSD. We often associate veterans with it but PTSD is far more common than we often think. It is a very blurry transition from traumatic stress to PTSD and you can find a list of symptoms here.Fortunately, there are many effective treatments for PTSD available today such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or the fairly new Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) to name but a few.
Having witnessed an extreme and unforgivably random act of violence myself, I’m talking from my own experience of what has helped me the most when things took a dark turn.
If you know someone going through trauma, here are some tips for how you can help.
1. Help them get therapy
No friend’s or family’s support can replace professional help. They are two different things, and in my opinion, both are crucial. Getting psychological help straight away can make the difference of traumatic stress turning into PTSD. When I experienced trauma, I completely disconnected and was unable to grasp the scope of what had happened. Friends gently suggested to seek help but initially I didn’t think I needed it. Thanks to my friends, I eventually agreed and I am so glad I did. Asking for help (especially when we are most vulnerable) can be incredibly hard and on top of that, it is a big task to research what help is available - one that’s often too much for victims. That’s where you come in.
2. Allow their emotions and listen
This one seems like a no-brainer but believe me, it’s not that straight-forward. Traumatic responses aren’t one-size-fits-all, they come in all shapes and colours. From numbness, panic and guilt to rage, depression and shame, trauma can trigger emotions that on the surface often don’t appear to be connected to the event itself. For example, if your friend suddenly lashes out, remember that this is quite possibly connected. I exploded regularly during the aftermath. This was very out of character for me, but I was unable to recognise that and thought I was perfectly fine. So, what can you do? As long as their behaviour isn’t harmful, simply allow it and please don’t take it personally. Be the shoulder to cry on when the amour comes off, the ear to listen to rages about tiny things or the friend who never pushes when they don’t want to talk.
3. Be aware of their triggers
Of course, triggers can be extremely subtle, but the big ones are usually blatantly obvious. Think of anything that has (even remotely) to do with what happened to your loved one. Those are subjects, places or activities you should avoid unless your friend seeks them in their own time or it is done under the supervision of a therapist. Never ever confront a victim with a trigger as this can re-enforce the trauma. When I was the key witness in court, I had to listen to my emergency call whilst on the stand - without prior warning and for the very first time. It wasn’t fun. My therapist wrote an angry letter to the prosecutors for putting my mental health at risk and I’m glad she did.
4. Help them reconnect when the time comes
After a traumatic incident, victims often go through emotional stages.They may not be linear but at some point, victims typically try to reconnect to their world. Help them pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives. You have seen them in their most vulnerable state without judging and your presence, now that they are integrating back, is of big value. Be there and make it easy for them to return to some form of normality.
5. Look after yourself
Trauma is no joke and supporting someone you love during those times is exhausting. It’s normal and okay to feel that way. That’s why it is crucial that you find ways to release your own bag of emotions. Being in nature, practicing mindfulness, exercising and talking to someone about your feelings can help you cope. Above all, rest assured that your support is invaluable but your well-being should never be sacrificed along the way.
Think of the oxygen masks on airplanes – yours goes on first.