Exposure to a traumatic event is unfortunately not something that we can always avoid. Statistics show that 50-75% of people will be exposed to trauma over their life time. Given this likelihood, it’s possible that you know someone who has experienced a traumatic event.
Knowing what to do or say to someone who has been exposed to trauma can be a challenging and daunting prospect. Fears around saying the wrong thing or making the situation worse are common concerns. It may also be difficult if that person is distant or shut off, as they try to come to terms with the event.
It would be helpful to first understand what a traumatised person might be going through. Common reactions to trauma include:
- Repeated images of the event which might seem intrusive and uncontrollable
- An overall increase in anxiety, which may also be seen as irritability or frustration
- Avoidance of places or situations that remind the person of the trauma. This also involves not wanting to talk about the trauma
- A re-assessment of pre-existing beliefs, particularly in regards to safety and trust
It’s important to note that not all people will respond in the same way, however it is safe to say that most people will feel emotional. How an individual reacts may be influenced by a number of factors including the type of trauma they were exposed to, whether they have been exposed to trauma in the past, the level of support they have or pervious history of mental health problems.
Supporting someone after they have been exposed to trauma has shown to reduce the risk of them developing PTSD (see here). Here are some tips to help you out:
What to say or do:
- Offer practical support- cook meals, offer to drive kids to appointments, etc
- Help them establish a daily routine-incorporating exercise and getting out of the house
- Make it known that you are available and willing to listen- particularly if they are withdrawing
- Listen non-judgementally
- Don’t avoid talking about the trauma however also don’t persist with it if they are not wanting to
What NOT to say or do:
- Don’t encourage alcohol or drug use
- Telling them to try and forget about it
- Try and change the subject when they bring it up
- That their feelings are wrong or that they are over-reacting (or even under-reacting)
If a month or so has passed since the traumatic event and you believe that the individual is continuing to experience many of the reactions listed above, it might be time to seek extra support. Encourage them to get into contact with their GP or a clinical psychologist, to assess their difficulties and provide trauma focused therapy, such as Cognitive Processing therapy, if needed.