The call comes in the middle of the night.
A tragic accident.
The betrayal and devastation of domestic violence.
In one stunning moment, your friend, colleague, church member, or loved one’s life has changed forever. And they’re turning to you for help. What do you do?
It can be difficult to establish priorities in the pain and chaos of the moment. But professionals in trauma tell us that it’s important to establish priorities for healing for those who have experienced trauma.
Your first goal as a support person for someone who’s experienced trauma is to reinforce their shattered sense of safety. Reassure them that their fears, confusion, and anxiety are part of the trauma process, and provide appropriate measures for their comfort and encouragement.
Someone who’s experienced trauma will have difficulty coping with the normal routine of life. Encourage them to maintain as much of their routine as possible—eating, sleeping, and caring for themselves. It’s natural that they may need time off from work or a break, but encourage them to engage with life.
Someone who’s experienced trauma will be triggered by the environment where the trauma occurred, as well as sounds, smells, images, objects, and people who remind them of the event. Triggers can cause wide-ranging symptoms: reliving the event, nightmares, anxiety attacks, loss of appetite, nausea, headaches, dissociation (zoning out), obsessive-compulsive behaviors, insomnia, and other symptoms. As much as possible reduce exposure to triggers, but understand that it’s impossible to control triggering events. Triggers are a part of PTSD. Here are a few suggestions for managing them:
Someone who’s experienced trauma will dissociate or “zone out” to escape flashbacks or troubling memories. Sometimes the person will feel numb, as if the word is floating past them. To help ground them and keep them focused on the present, ask them to: Name five things in the room. Suck on candy or drink something cold. Stroke something with texture or a pet. Sniff pleasant scents. Repeat words and phrases.
The second important stage of addressing trauma is helping the individual process their traumatic memories and emotions. The memories that have become “stuck” in the right side of the brain need to be delivered to the left side through trauma treatment. One means of doing this is by having the person create a written story of the event, accompanied by visual symbols or depictions through drawings or art. This helps the person produce a unified narrative of their experience that they can file in their brain as an event that occurred in the past. Trauma stories are also processed using other methods.
Once the trauma has been processed, the final stage of trauma treatment is for the individual to gain a deeper understanding of themself, of their experience, and a richer understanding of life as they gain wisdom and resilience from their trauma. This is done as the individual re-evaluates their story in light of new knowledge and wisdom. Writing can often be a key component of this process.