Understanding trauma and how you can help
Did someone you care about experience something traumatic? Your support can play an important role in helping them cope and feel better.
You might feel stuck between wanting to help and not knowing how. You might be struggling to understand what they went through. Even if you don’t know where to start, or what will help, often simply being there for them can mean a great deal.
On this page you will find practical steps you can take to support someone who has experienced something traumatic.
Caring for someone struggling with their mental health can be challenging, tiring, and sometimes frustrating. It’s really important to remember:
- Ultimately, we can’t always help, or ‘fix’ someone else. You might try your best and do everything you can without them improving, and that’s not your fault or your failure.
- Some people might not want help, or not be ready for it, and that’s their choice to make. Sometimes the best you can do is to let them know you’re there if they change their mind.
- Always remember to look after yourself. It’s hard to help someone else if you’re struggling yourself, so being aware of your own needs and practicing self-care should always come first.
Recognising the signs
Recognising trauma in someone you care about isn’t always easy, as everyone can experience different effects .
If you know the person well, it’s best to trust your gut as to whether they’re acting differently, or something has changed for them.
Someone affected by trauma may express the following:
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- Feeling disconnected from others and the world around them
- Feeling irritable, on-edge, or aggressive
- Feeling anxious or scared.
They may show symptoms, such as:
- Flashbacks or nightmares
- Difficulties sleeping
- Zoning out and having trouble concentrating
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Constant worry
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities
- Avoiding specific situations, things or people
- Using drugs or alcohol more than usual
- Signs of self-harm, such as unusual cuts, burns, or other injuries.
If you’re unsure how someone is coping following a traumatic event, it’s usually best to simply ask the person if you can help, in a non-confrontational and non-judgemental way. It can also help to learn more about trauma and its effects.
How to help
- Start a conversation
Often one of the most powerful things you can do for a friend or family member is to let them know that you’re there for them.
Knowing how and when to have this important conversation can be tricky.
Here are a few tips:
- Try to create time for the conversation. This might mean suggesting a walk or other activity that gives you the time to talk, without distractions. It might mean waiting until the end of an event when you have time to yourselves.
- Gently let them know that you care about them, and want to help.
- Listen and be curious about their experience. Give them space to share if they choose to. You can ask open questions such as ‘how are you feeling?’ or ‘what’s going on for you at the moment?’
- Sometimes it can help to open up about your own experiences, which can ‘give permission’ to your friend or family member to also share. Being vulnerable can be hard, but it’s easier if you’re both in the same boat.
- Rather than jumping to solutions, it can be helpful to ask what they need from you at that moment. You might ask something like ‘would you like me to just listen right now, or would you like help thinking about what you might do from here?'
- Try to resist the urge to paint a silver lining, or minimise their concerns. Instead, it can be helpful to validate their experience by saying things like ‘it sounds like you are going through a really tough time right now’ or ‘that must be so difficult for you’.
It can be really hard for people to open up after traumatic events, so don’t be disheartened or hurt if your friend or family member doesn’t want to talk about it just yet. Healing takes time, and everyone goes at their own pace.
You might like to gently let them know that you’re still there if they change their mind, or if there’s something you can do in the future.
- Learn their triggers
- Acknowledge their achievements and progress
- Respect their privacy and try not to take over
- Offer practical support
- Spend time and do positive things together
- Support them to seek help
Looking after yourself and your own mental health
It can be really hard to support someone recovering from trauma. They may require extra attention or specific support that especially impact the people around them. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone, and there are support services available specifically for anyone who supports those with mental health issues (also known as a carer).
Remember that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. The best way you can care for someone else, is to make sure you are okay first. Looking after yourself as a carer means being tuned in to how you’re feeling and taking a step back when you need to.
- Be aware of vicarious trauma
- Setting healthy boundaries
- Share your caring role
- Talk to people with similar experiences
Actively practice self-care
- Be kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself while caring for others is really important. You might feel frustrated, stretched, or even powerless, but adding shame or guilt to those emotions by criticising yourself will only make you feel worse.
It’s ok to reduce the expectations you’ve set for yourself, and to take a break when you need it.
- Eating well
- Getting regular exercise
- Avoiding substances
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting out into nature
- Developing a routine