Hardships

7 Ways to Help a Loved One Who Has Experienced Trauma

Elizabeth Clayton Lee

One moment, everything seems fine. The next, my child is in crisis. As a foster and adoptive parent, I’ve seen the devastating effects of trauma played out in the lives of vulnerable children.

Whether someone is a child or an adult, traumatic experiences can have lasting effects that may interfere with everyday life. Panic attacks, extreme fear, and total meltdowns can come on suddenly and unexpectedly.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Jennifer Sweeton explains that trauma impairs a person’s ability to reason and heightens the brain’s fear and stress response. Seeing, hearing or even smelling something the brain associates with a traumatic experience can send a person into fight-or-flight panic.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed because my kids have gone through incredibly difficult things that continue to affect so many areas of their lives. Loving someone who is dealing with trauma isn’t easy, but it’s important. People experiencing ongoing trauma need others to love and support them through their healing process.

According to a study by Dr. J Douglas Bremner published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, trauma literally changes how a person’s brain functions. This can seem intimidating, but there is hope for healing.

You can be a trustworthy person to someone facing trauma by learning to respond with love, understanding and compassion. Here are seven ways you can help:

1. Learn About Trauma

Trauma is complex, and the healing process is difficult. Learning about trauma will help you understand more about what your loved one is going through and equip you to better care for her.

2. Recognize That People Don’t Just Get Over Trauma

By definition, trauma has lasting psychological, emotional, social and even spiritual effects. Be patient with your friend and don’t take it personally if he withdraws or lashes out at you.

You may also need to reestablish trust. If your friend opened up to someone, whether a loved one or an authority figure, and that person responded in a negative way, it will be more difficult for him to open up again.

3. Encourage Your Loved One to Get Treatment

While you can walk the journey of healing with your loved one, trauma is serious, and people usually need some sort of professional help. Offer to help him find a counselor or to drive him to an appointment.

4. Listen

Your loved one may not want to talk about all the details of her experience, and that’s OK. Don’t pressure her to share. When she does want to talk, stick to listening, encouraging and affirming. Don’t judge her or try to “fix” her.

5. Reach Out to Your Loved One

When someone is suffering from trauma, he may isolate himself, consciously or unconsciously, as a protective measure.

While it can be helpful to take a break from big crowds or certain environments, isolation makes things worse. We all need others in our lives, especially when we’re suffering.

Be proactive about spending time with your friend. Let him know you’re thinking of him. Even if he doesn’t feel able to respond, knowing you care and are there when he’s ready to open up can be a great encouragement.

6. Pray and Offer Hope

Don’t offer platitudes like “everything happens for a reason.” Pray for your loved one. Remind her there’s still hope and that God does care. Remind her that He ultimately wants to wipe away her tears and take away death, sorrow and pain (Revelation 21:1-7).

7. Take Care of Yourself

Take time to rest and recharge physically, emotionally and spiritually. When you love someone who has experienced trauma, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by his pain and emotional burden. This is called secondary trauma or compassion fatigue.

In his Atlantic article “When PTSD is Contagious,” Aaron Reuben explains that caregivers for people suffering from trauma, including therapists, can internalize the traumatic experiences they hear from others. As they recall the horrific details they have heard, they can actually begin to suffer from symptoms of trauma and even PTSD themselves.

It’s hard when the atrocities seen on the news play out in the life of someone you love. As a foster parent, loving children who experienced extreme abuse and neglect has changed me.

If you’re being affected by hearing the story of someone who survived a traumatic experience, consider attending a support group for caregivers or others in your situation (eg foster parents, military spouses, families of crime victims, etc).

Make sure you’re not the only person supporting your loved one. Help him build a support network of friends, family members and professionals.

Being surrounded by a caring community that offers God’s love and hope can make a big difference in the healing process.

The following resources are primarily focused on combat veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD. A lot of the suggestions can also be helpful for anyone dealing with trauma. 

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