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How To Help Someone With Trauma: What You Can Do

Understanding Trauma

Experiencing a traumatic event can be utterly life-altering. Whether it’s a serious accident, act of violence, natural disaster, or other overwhelmingly stressful situations, trauma significantly affects a person’s mental and emotional well-being.

When we go through something traumatic, it understandably elicits strong feelings like:

  • Shock, denial, disbelief
  • Helplessness, vulnerability
  • Horror, anxiety, panic
  • Anger, resentment, rage
  • Shame, guilt, self-blame

In the aftermath of trauma, most people experience acute stress and may struggle to process what happened. This is a normal response. With support from loved ones, many feel better within weeks or months.

However, some develop longer-term difficulties known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can happen if the traumatic experience was especially severe, caused physical harm, or touched on earlier traumatic memories.

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Key Signs & Symptoms of PTSD

Many associate PTSD solely with military veterans, but it can affect anyone. Some key signs include:

  • Flashbacks – re-living aspects of the trauma through vivid, often terrifying memories
  • Nightmares – experiencing traumatic imagery or sensations while sleeping
  • Avoidance – steering clear of people, places, and activities associated with the trauma
  • Hyperarousal – being on constant alert for danger, startling easily
  • Negative thoughts – persistent feelings of shame, blame, anger, or helplessness

Loved ones may also notice emotional numbness, dissociation, depression, and trouble feeling positive emotions.

Complex PTSD

When trauma is ongoing or repetitive, like childhood abuse or domestic violence, it’s called complex PTSD. The effects tend to be more severe and may include:

  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Challenges with self-image and relationships
  • Loss of trust
  • Feeling detached or suicidal

Healing is Possible

The good news is that time, effort, and expert support can overcome trauma. While your loved one’s recovery may feel painfully slow, be patient. Healing from trauma is a marathon, not a sprint. With your compassion and encouragement, they can get to a place of hope again.

Providing Emotional Support

A wife talking to her husband in the bedroom about his trauma

When someone you love has experienced trauma, one of the most important things you can do is provide emotional support. While you can’t remove their pain, you can help them feel less alone.

Listen Without Judgment

Be willing to listen when they want to talk, but don’t pressure them to share more than they are ready to. Trauma can be difficult to put into words, so give them space and time.

As you listen, keep in mind:

  • Let them share at their own pace
  • Focus on listening rather than asking questions
  • Don’t criticize their reactions or emotions
  • Use their own words to describe the experience
  • Avoid dismissing or invalidating their feelings

Even if details are shared casually or matter-of-factly, don’t assume they are fine. This detached manner of speaking is familiar with trauma.

Allow Space and Privacy

In the wake of trauma, it’s natural for survivors to feel vulnerable and want more personal space. Be mindful not to crowd them. Ask permission before hugging or touching.

Please respect their privacy, too. Don’t share what they’ve confided without their consent, even with family. However, you can discuss your feelings with someone you trust.

Be Patient and Present

Recovering from trauma takes time. Avoid telling them to “get over it” or criticizing their coping pace. Patience and presence are what they need most.

Rather than expecting them to move on, be attentive to their struggles. Offer to sit with them during bouts of anxiety or flashbacks. Your calm, non-judgmental presence can be very soothing.

Avoid Unhelpful Comments

Think carefully about what you say to avoid causing more hurt. Don’t:

  • Make light of the trauma – “You were lucky it wasn’t worse!”
  • Dismiss their feelings – “You shouldn’t still be sad about this.”
  • Offer unsought advice – “If I were you, I would just…”
  • Say you know how they feel – “I totally understand what you’re going through.”

While well-intentioned, these comments tend to do more harm than good.

What Helps Most

Instead, the most helpful emotional support looks like:

  • Listening patiently and compassionately
  • Offering comfort through your presence
  • Reminding them they are loved
  • Respecting their boundaries and needs
  • Accepting them exactly as they are

With time, consistency, and unconditional support, you can help build an environment where your loved one feels safe opening up about their journey toward healing.

Offering Practical Assistance

In addition to emotional support, offering practical assistance can aid your loved one’s trauma recovery. Daily tasks and responsibilities may feel daunting when someone struggles with PTSD symptoms like exhaustion, lack of concentration, or dissociation.

You can gently help carry these burdens while they focus on healing.

Help with Daily Tasks

Ask how you can make things easier in their day-to-day life. Offer to help with:

  • Household chores – cleaning, laundry, yardwork
  • Meal preparation – grocery shopping, cooking
  • Childcare – school drop-offs/pick-ups, caregiving
  • ** Transportation** – driving to appointments, errands

If needed, help them make lists or set phone reminders for taking medication, paying bills, or other essential tasks they may struggle to manage.

Create Routines and Structure

Stability and predictability can provide a great sense of comfort after trauma. Work together to build regular routines around:

  • Eating meals
  • Going to sleep and waking up
  • Getting ready in the morning
  • Winding down at night

Having structure to the day helps restore a feeling of control.

Minimize Stressors

Look for ways to reduce unnecessary stress at home. This might involve:

  • Helping declutter to create peaceful spaces
  • Ensuring they get enough rest and relaxation
  • Managing visitors so they aren’t overwhelmed
  • Making wholesome, nutritious meals they enjoy
  • Going for walks together in nature

Rebuild Trust and Safety

Trauma often destroys a person’s sense of security. Be trustworthy, consistent, and reliable. Help make their environment feel safe again by:

  • Sharing your commitment to support them
  • Following through consistently on what you say
  • Respecting their boundaries and needs
  • Emphasizing their strengths and capability

Handling Triggers and Flashbacks

Supporting someone with PTSD involves learning to recognize and respond to triggers and flashbacks.

Understanding Triggers

trigger reminds the person of their trauma and elicits an emotional or physical reaction. Triggers can vary greatly depending on the individual and type of trauma.

Some common external triggers include:

  • Certain sights, sounds, or smells
  • Locations, situations, or dates associated with the trauma
  • Media depictions of trauma or violence
  • Relationship conflicts or pressures

Internal triggers may involve:

  • Physical discomfort or injury
  • Difficult emotions like helplessness, shame, anger
  • Nightmares and intrusive memories

Triggers can set off flashbacks, panic attacks, or painful re-experiencing of the trauma.

Supporting Them through Flashbacks

flashback is a vivid, dissociative experience where aspects of the trauma are relived. They feel natural, as if the person has been transported back in time.

Here’s how you can help during a flashback episode:

  • Remain calm and gently explain that they are having a flashback.
  • Encourage them to breathe slowly.
  • Avoid sudden movements that could startle them.
  • Ask permission before touching them.
  • Help ground them by describing their surroundings.

Creating a plan for managing triggers and flashbacks can reduce anxiety for you both.

Encouraging Professional Help

  • Encourage Professional Help for PTSD Recovery
    • Your support is vital, but specialized counselling is often essential.
    • Approach the topic during a calm moment, framing therapy positively.
  • Highlight Therapy Benefits
    • Offer greater independence and control.
    • Provide skills to handle emotions.
    • Teach techniques to reduce anxiety.
    • Restore happiness and engagement in activities.
  • Address Specific Issues with Therapy
    • Help with anger management.
    • Aid in improving concentration.
    • Address sleep disturbances.
    • Tackle substance abuse issues.
  • Set Realistic Therapy Expectations
    • Therapy takes time, and the right therapist match.
    • Emphasize the value of even small improvements.
  • Seek Recommendations from Trusted Individuals
    • A suggestion from a respected person can be impactful.
  • Share Success Stories
    • Share stories of others who benefited from therapy.
    • Avoid making direct comparisons.
  • Assist in Finding the Right Therapist
    • Research and present trauma-informed therapist options.
    • Consider scheduling an initial appointment for them.

Trauma-Focused Therapies

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and trauma can deeply impact a person’s life. However, several therapy modalities have been effective in helping individuals heal and regain control. Here are four therapy modalities for PTSD and trauma:

  1. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

    • What is it? EMDR is a unique therapy approach that helps people process traumatic memories. It involves the therapist guiding the client in moving their eyes back and forth while recalling the traumatic event.
    • How does it help? The eye movements can help change how the brain processes traumatic memories, making them less distressing.
    • Why choose EMDR? Many people find relief from PTSD symptoms in fewer sessions than other therapies.
  2. Lifespan Integration

    • What is it? Lifespan Integration is a gentle method that helps individuals heal from traumatic events by integrating memories from different stages of their lives.
    • How does it help? By revisiting and integrating memories in a safe environment, the person can feel more connected and less triggered by past events.
    • Why choose Lifespan Integration? It’s a gentle approach that can be particularly helpful for those who have experienced early childhood trauma.
  3. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

    • What is it? CBT is a talk therapy that helps individuals recognize and change negative thought patterns and behaviours.
    • How does it help? Individuals can develop healthier coping mechanisms by challenging and changing unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma.
    • Why choose CBT? It’s evidence-based and widely researched for its effectiveness in treating PTSD.
  4. Prolonged Exposure Therapy

    • What is it? This therapy involves gradually exposing individuals to thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind them of the trauma.
    • How does it help? Over time, repeated exposure in a controlled environment can reduce traumatic memories’ power and emotional charge.
    • Why choose Prolonged Exposure Therapy? It’s especially effective for those avoiding things that remind them of the trauma.

Rebuilding Family Relationships

  • Rebuilding Family Relationships After Trauma

    • Trauma affects the entire family; navigate with patience and care.
  • Open Communication

    • Discuss trauma’s impact on mood and behaviour.
    • Listen to your loved one’s perspective without blame.
    • Focus on mutual understanding and shared vulnerability.
  • Address Complex Emotions

    • Recognize feelings of relief, guilt, frustration, and more.
    • Express emotions constructively to avoid resentment.
  • Seek Family Counselling

    • Opt for trauma-informed family therapy.
    • Learn communication skills, resolve conflicts, and adapt to changing dynamics.
  • Prioritize Self-Care

    • Avoid caregiver burnout by taking breaks.
    • Engage in rejuvenating activities and seek support from friends.
    • Model holistic well-being for the entire family.
  • Stay Hopeful

    • With effort, families can recover and deepen their connections.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Triggers vary by individual but often involve sights, sounds, smells, places, or situations related to the trauma. Internal states like hunger, pain, or anger can also trigger symptoms. Have an open conversation to learn their specific triggers. Then, collaborate on a plan to thoughtfully avoid or manage them.

Remain calm, gently explain they are having a flashback, and ground them by describing their surroundings. Discourage sudden movements and ask before touching to avoid triggering feelings of being trapped. Breathing exercises can also help lessen panic. Reassure them the event is not reoccurring as it can feel genuine.

Timing is important. Wait for a stable moment to sensitively suggest counselling. Point out benefits like learning coping skills rather than saying they have a problem that needs fixing. Acknowledge therapy isn't fast or magical while reinforcing that gains, however small, are worthwhile. Sharing recovery stories or having a trusted messenger recommend treatment may inspire them. Find a therapist near you!

Make time for activities that recharge you, and don't neglect your needs. Set boundaries and allow others to provide caregiving relief when possible. Join a support group to process your feelings. Tend to your physical and mental well-being through healthy habits. Helping your loved one through trauma takes resilience. Nurture yourself so you can nurture them.

Trauma survivors often need more personal space as they regain a sense of safety. Ask what would help them feel most comfortable daily and avoid pressuring them to talk, touch, or socialize more than they want. Offer support consistently, but let them control the pace of interactions. Patience and empathy for their boundaries show love and respect.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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