If a someone you care about has been impacted by a traumatic event, it can be extremely distressing to watch them try to deal with the effects of such an experience.

It’s normal to want to help them or take their pain away. You may find yourself worrying about their well-being and you may feel helpless by their emotional reactions to the event.

Someone who has experienced a traumatic experience may seem ‘shut down’ or distant as a way to block out painful memories. Others may feel numb, or lack the energy to do things. They may stop participating in family life, ignore your offers of help, or become angry and irritable. Everyone reacts differently.

It’s important to remember that these reactions are signs that your loved one may not be coping. These reactions are not necessarily about you. If you are wondering what you can do to be supportive to a person dealing with a recent trauma, here are some places to start:

1. Recognise

It’s important to recognise that they have been through something extremely stressful event and may need time away to process what happened to them. It can be difficult to accept this but you can help them by providing practical day-to-day support, like helping them with grocery shopping or cooking a meal.

2. Listen

This probably one of the most important things you can do. Doing “active listening” can be really important to survivors of trauma. This means devoting your attention to the act of listening carefully without judging, interrupting, or talking about your own personal stories. Asking questions and clarifying what you are hearing is also an important part of active listening as it shows that you are interested in getting the details right.

3. Don’t judge

Try to imagine how it might feel to be in their shoes. Judgments are a heavy burden that many trauma survivors are familiar with, don’t add to this burden. Instead, you can help by simply supporting the person without implying that they should (or shouldn’t) have done something differently, or that what they did was wrong or right thing, or good or bad. Let the person guide the conversation and take their lead.

4. Acknowledge

Acknowledge what they are going through with statements like, “it’s really tough to go through something like this” or “This is such a difficult time for you”. Simply validating that they are going through a difficult situation can be really helpful. you can 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…”

5. Avoid pathologizing

It’s normal to feel a range of different emotions to trauma. There is no ‘right way’ to react. Give the person a few weeks and refrain from labelling what they are going through as an illness. It only becomes a problems after a couple of months if their responses are interfering with the person’s daily life. If that is the case you could speak with the person about finding some professional support in a nonjudgmental way so the person does not feel attacked.

6. Take care of yourself

Taking care of yourself 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 massive toll on you, so much so that your own health can be affected and you can no longer act as an effective support person. During these times, it’s critical to do your own self-care. You might also benefit from speaking to a counsellor or finding a support group. If you’ve tried all 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 help you and your loved one, and refer you to services and professionals that can help.

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