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Supporting a loved one with trauma

It can be hard to know what to do when someone you love such as a child, sibling, or partner is dealing with trauma.  They can seem erratic and unpredictable.  They are often overwhelmed by events and situations that you find mildly irritating or even safe.  When they are overwhelmed, it isn’t always during opportune times.  It could be when you are just trying to have a good time, or when you are trying to work together.  When you seem to be the trigger for the reaction it is hard not to take it personally.

There are things about trauma that are useful to know.

  • Your loved one has a part of them that is stuck in the past in a very frightening event. They are making every effort to stay calm and rational, but the triggers are overwhelming.  There is neurobiological response happening in the brain that impairs higher thinking and puts people in a defensive mode.  In those situations, your loved one is seeking safety.
  • You don’t just get over trauma. In fact, the inability to get over something pretty much is the definition of trauma.   Telling people to just “get over it” never works.  Trust me, if a trauma survivor could flip a switch and not live in constant vigilance and fear they would.
  • When people are triggered, they are reacting to a threat that is very real to them. The goal is self protection.
    1. Some dissociate. This means they protect themselves by mentally disconnecting from the present moment.   In doing this, their mind is getting ready to soften the impact of the threat.
    2. Some react by getting very angry and attack people they see as a threat
    3. Some withdraw and try to get as much distance as they can from the threat.

What are important things you can do to help

  • Talk to your loved one about their triggers. Be open and curious, and patient.  These things are hard to talk about.  They can be embarrassing.  Check in to make sure your loved one is comfortable talking.  Understand how they typically react and come up with a plan for how each of you will respond.  Learn to when to give space and when not to.  What does your loved one need to hear from you and when?  Does your loved on need help with grounding or other exercises to help them recover from a panic attack?
  • Don’t start trying to argue or convince people they shouldn’t be afraid. While there is always a cognitive component, trauma isn’t resolved by focusing on the rational side of the brain.  The best approaches to resolving trauma involve connecting and integrating emotional and somatic (body) feelings and memories.  The best way to resolve trauma is by working with a trauma informed therapist.
  • Be as safe, calm, and reassuring as possible. Seek to understand what the most reassuring response would be.  Sometimes people are triggered by people being nice and then turn cruel.
  • Try not to take things personally. Often when trauma survivors are triggered they are reacting to a blend of the present and the past.  Recognize that when someone you love gets overwhelmed, they will react to situations in a way that doesn’t make sense to you.  It’s hard because sometimes what they do hurts.  The things they say and the things they imply by what they do can be difficult to experience.Animals can be sources of love and healing
  • Understand your own triggers and don’t assume you know why your loved one is acting the way they are. For example, it might seem like your child is being willfully uncooperative, but they are overwhelmed with fear.  The aggression you see in another child might be caused by a trigger that overwhelms them and no amount of punishment will help.
  • Never shame or condemn yourself or your loved one. Be mindful of comments like “you always do this” or “why are you like this”, “why can’t you be like your brother.”   Shame just feeds the pain that fuels the behavior you find disheartening.
  • Listen well. Take some time to learn empathic listening.
  • You can be an essential part of the healing process. Having one safe, secure person goes a long way to helping people learn to trust and bond with others.  Having a therapist a is great, but you can do things a therapist can’t do.  Like offer safe levels of physical warmth or affection.  You can offer them the reassurance that they are loved, appreciated, and valued.   You can be with them for the long-haul offering compassion and acceptance.  Love and connection heal.
  • Get a pet.  Sometimes people can be really scary, but pets aren’t.  The unconditional love and acceptance of a cat or dog can be very therapeutic.