The support of family and friends is critical when someone is coming to terms with a traumatic event. There is a lot you can do to help the person who has been affected.
It can be difficult to see someone you care about struggle with the distress caused by a traumatic event. You may find yourself worrying about their wellbeing and you may feel helpless when confronted by their emotional reactions to the event.
People who experience continuing difficulties following a traumatic experience may seem ‘shut down’ or distant, and you may feel ‘shut out’. For some people this happens because they are trying not to think about the trauma, or trying to block out painful memories. Others may feel sad or numbed, or lack the energy to do things. They may stop participating in family life, ignore your offers of help, or become irritable.
It is important to remember that these reactions are signs that your loved one may not be coping. These reactions are not necessarily about you. He or she probably really needs your ongoing support, but is struggling to see a way out of their distress, and struggling to ask for help.
Provide practical support
After going through a traumatic experience, it’s important to re-establish a normal routine. This helps restore a sense of predictability and control. Here are some ideas for how you can help a person return to their normal routine:
- Recognise that they have been through an extremely stressful event and may need time and space to deal with it. You can help them to find that time and space by providing practical support, such as offering to take care of the kids, or do the weekly shopping.
- Encourage them to limit their exposure to media coverage of the event. You might offer to keep track of the news and inform them of new or important information so that they don’t feel the need to monitor it constantly.
- Encourage them to look after themselves by getting plenty of rest, eating well, exercising regularly, and making time for relaxation, as well as cutting back on coffee, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
- Do enjoyable things with them, and encourage them to plan to do at least one enjoyable thing each day. You may need to help them come up with some ideas by asking them what activities they used to enjoy before the traumatic event, or making some suggestions.
- Acknowledge their achievements. Sometimes it’s hard to see that things are improving, and the person may need you to point out when they have achieved a goal, no matter how small.
- Encourage them to seek professional help if they are still finding it hard to cope two weeks or more after the traumatic event.
Provide emotional support
Your friend or family member may or may not want to talk about their experience or feelings. This is OK, it’s important not to force people to confront the event or their reactions before they are ready. If they do want to talk, the following tips may be helpful.
- Choose a time to talk when you won’t be interrupted, or feel rushed or tired.
- Reassure them that distress is to be expected after what they have experienced.
- Make another time to talk if it seems like the person is too distressed to continue.
- Understand that talking about trauma can be painful, and the person may get upset. This is a natural part of coming to terms with their experience. Don’t feel that you have to make their distress go away.
Listening is very important, but it can sometimes be hard to know what to say. Don’t worry about having to say ‘the right thing’. There is no right thing to say, but here are a few pointers.
- Try to put yourself in their shoes. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer examples from your own life, and don’t talk about yourself.
- Avoid offering simple reassurances such as, “I know how you feel”, or “You’ll be OK”.
- Acknowledge their distress with statements like, “It’s really tough to go through something like this”, “This is such a tough time for you”, or “Sometimes it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel”.
- Ask leading questions like, “Would it be helpful to talk about (the event)?”, “You’ve had a rough time, how are you going?” You might ask how the event has impacted on other people … “How’s Sarah going?”
- Show that you understand by re-phrasing the information they give you. Try starting with something like, “You seem really…”, “It sounds like…”, “Did I understand right that you…”, “No wonder you feel…”
If they don’t want to talk, you can still show your support by spending time with them, talking about other things, and doing practical things to help. Let them be alone for a while if that’s what they want, but encourage them to have company for some time each day. Becoming isolated or cutting themselves off from other people is likely to make matters worse rather than better.
Look after yourself
This may be the most important thing you can do to help your loved one. Supporting someone who has been through a traumatic event can take a toll on you, sometimes so much so that your own health can be affected and you can no longer act as an effective support person. It is crucial that you take time out and reach out to friends and other supportive people in your community. You might like to seek the help of a counsellor, or find a support group. Your GP or a mental health professional can provide you with information and the names of people and organisations that can help.
If you’ve tried these strategies and things still aren’t improving after a couple of weeks, or if you or your loved one is having trouble coping with work or with relationships, talk to your GP. Your GP can assist you and your loved one, and refer you to services and professionals that can help.