How to Help a Loved One Overcome Trauma
Traumatic events occur every day to untold numbers of people. But no matter how widespread the trauma, what it comes right down to is how trauma affects the individual. Trauma could be the result of a natural disaster, terrorism, mass violence, or it could be closer to home and involve domestic violence or sexual abuse, the loss of a job or economic stability. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start to help a loved one overcome trauma and resume a normal life, but there are some basic things that you can do.
Dealing with Stress
Following a traumatic event, many people show some signs of stress. Experts say this is normal, but just because it is normal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to it. Some individuals can handle stress better than others. But first, you need to be aware of the signs of stress. These signs of stress cover the areas of your body, emotions, thinking, and behavior.
• Body: Signs of stress include bodily discomfort such as headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea and other pains, loss of appetite (or eating too much), sweating or chills, quick startle response, tremors and muscle twitches.
• Emotions: People under great stress may be anxious or fearful, feel depressed or angry, guilty, heroic, euphoric or invulnerable, or they may not feel anything. They may also become overwhelmed by sadness.
• Thinking: Coming out of a traumatic event, many individuals have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly. It’s difficult for them to make decisions and they often feel confused and have trouble remembering things.
• Behavior: If someone you love has experienced trauma, they may begin to demonstrate an increased use of alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs or prescription drugs used nonmedically. Energy levels and activity may increase or decrease, along with an increase in irritability, angry outbursts, and frequent arguing. Frequent crying, worry, and wanting to be alone are other behaviors to look out for. In addition, your loved one suffering from stress after a traumatic event may begin blaming other people for everything, find it difficult to communicate or listen to others, be unable to give or accept help, and have difficulty sleeping or relaxing.
What You Can Do
You can help your loved one overcome trauma by first paying attention to signs of stress and taking the following 10 steps:
1. Safe Shelter – After trauma, the most basic of human needs must be met. It’s critical to restore your loved one to a place where he or she will be safe and have shelter. This is especially critical following a natural disaster, terrorism, or mass violence where safe shelter may be difficult to secure. But it’s equally important for your loved one who is the victim of sexual abuse or domestic violence.
2. Nutrition – Make sure your loved one eats healthy foods, regular meals, and drinks plenty of water. Hydration is very important during times of stress. It’s also a good idea to avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol during this time.
3. Rest – Although it may be resisted by the individual, encourage him or her to rest. Without adequate sleep, the body can’t rejuvenate or overcome the effects of the trauma and stress. Have your loved one lie in a quiet and darkened room. Even if he or she is unable to sleep through the night at first, just resting without interruption will help to restore calm. Eventually, sleep should come, and along with it, the body’s restorative powers can begin.
4. Physical Exercise – Sometimes the last thing a person who has experienced trauma wants to do is engage in physical exercise, but this is really a very good way to help them get rid of the negative effects of stress. You can help by encouraging them to participate in a sport or activity you know they enjoy, or join in a game with the family. You may even disguise it as exercise by making it a family effort. Start by stretching, or meditating, doing deep breathing exercises, or yoga. It isn’t how much exercise the person does, but the fact that they do it. Exercise will also help your loved one get back into the rhythm of normal daily life.
5. Relaxation – After someone experiences trauma and is dealing with stress, they need to re-learn how to relax. If you know your loved one enjoys reading, encourage him or her with some books you bring home. If music is a favorite pastime, take him or her out to a concert, buy a favorite artist’s CD, or go to a music festival. Cooking and going out to eat are other relaxing activities that may also help your loved one relax. Whatever it is that you know your loved one generally finds enjoyment doing, make it a point to encourage this kind of activity. Better yet, join in with your loved one.
6. Pacing – Undoubtedly, after a traumatic event, your loved one is involved in some highly stressful activities. Remind him or her that it’s necessary to pace themselves, and to allow sufficient time after stressful tasks for doing something fun (or at least something that takes their minds off the stress).
7. Listen and Talk – It may be helpful for your loved one to talk about what occurred, and, with your encouragement, bring up ways he or she was able to deal with traumatic events in the past. We are all a product of our cumulative experiences and ways we dealt with things in the past may prove helpful now. You can mention your own past dealings with stress and trauma and what worked for you. But don’t be judgmental and force your ideas on your loved one. Listen to what he or she has to say, including allowing their pent-up emotions to release.
8. Give Assurance – When your loved one expresses or shows signs of being depressed, guilty, or angry, he or she needs your assurance that this is perfectly normal, given what transpired. Just hearing your reassurance will help, even if it’s quickly dismissed. Be consistent in offering assurance, as it may take some time to sink in.
9. Connect with Others – Your loved one can most likely benefit by connecting with other survivors of trauma and traumatic events. You can help by finding such a group and going with your loved one to the meeting. At least, get him or her to the meeting, even if you don’t go in. Why is connecting with other survivors of a traumatic event important? For one thing, your loved one will be able to see and hear that others have and are experiencing the same types of difficulties and that will give them some measure of comfort that they are not alone.
10. Prayer and Meditation – The spiritual needs of your loved one are also important. Take the lead by initiating family prayers or going to your church or place of worship, listening to mass or religious service on the radio or watching it on TV. You can also meditate together.
Beware of Substance Abuse
Many people try to deal with trauma by burying it. They drink too much, do drugs, or engage in other addictive behavior in a valiant – and usually ineffective – effort to forget the pain, to numb it, to make it go away. Even if your loved one didn’t overindulge in alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behavior prior to the trauma, he or she may gravitate toward it as a solution now. If he or she already misused substances or was dependent on them, now the abuse may become addiction as your loved one struggles to combat the nightmares and pain of what he or she endured.
Depending on the type of trauma, and whether it occurred prior to or in conjunction with substance abuse, counseling or professional addiction treatment may be advisable. Certainly, your loved one may find it objectionable to go to treatment. Denial is paramount with those who are dependent on or addicted to alcohol and drugs (and other addictive behaviors). But he or she may be convinced to go to counseling of some form. The point is that you should seek the help your loved one needs and do the best to encourage him or her to take it. Recognize that accepting help for a problem may be extremely hard for your loved one to do, so be patient, but be firm.
Counseling may also help your loved one unlock the buried aspects of the trauma so that healing can begin. Traumatic memories may have been repressed (buried), and subsequent behavior that is self-destructive may now mask the underlying cause. Generally, only professional counseling can unlock such deeply-entrenched memories.
Treatment experts say that trauma alone can be a very complex and complicated process. Add substance abuse to the equation and the situation can become even more fragile.
Look for a treatment facility that specializes in treating patients with trauma and substance abuse (or trauma and other issues). Be aware that there should not be a time limit on how long it takes your loved one to heal. Each person is different and responds according to his or her own needs and capabilities. How effective treatment is will very much depend on the kind and amount of support he or she receives during and after treatment. Attendance at 12-step fellowship meetings can be critical to sustaining recovery after completion of treatment.
Following treatment, be prepared for your loved one to experience flashbacks, or recurrent thoughts and nightmares about the trauma. The more trauma your loved one experienced, or the number of times his or her life appeared chaotic, the more severe the trauma – and the longer it will likely take to overcome. If your loved one relapses and seems to go backward instead of forward in recovery, do not criticize or harp on the occurrence. Instead, encourage him or her to get back into utilizing the positive coping mechanisms, resume counseling, attend more 12-step meetings, and engage in healthier behaviors. Be positive, supportive and loving, but allow your loved one the time he or she needs to fully embrace recovery.
It’s also important to respect your loved one’s privacy. After trauma, privacy is a precious commodity and one that’s critical to the individual’s ability to heal.
Other family members may also benefit from family treatment. You can find this through the treatment facility where your loved one is undergoing his or her treatment regimen. Family counseling is also available from private therapists and mental health professionals. You can obtain referrals by calling one of the resources or hotlines listed below.
Getting Additional Help
Despite your best intentions and efforts, it may very well be that your loved one needs more help than you can reasonably give. He or she may be so overwhelmed by guilt or sadness or other powerful and self-destructive emotions and behavior that you may want to consider seeking help from a mental health or substance abuse professional.
Talk of killing or hurting oneself or others, constant discussions of death, dying, or suicide, increased rage or talk of exacting revenge should raise a red flag. Get help immediately for your loved one by calling one of the following resources, treatment referrals or hotlines:
• National Mental Health Information Center – 1-800-789-2647
• National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information – 1-800-729-6686
• Mental Health Services Locator – 1-800-789-2647
• Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator – 1-800-662-HELP
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK
• Workplace Helpline – 1-800-WORKPLACE (967-5752)
• Office for Victims of Crime – 1-800-851-3420
Will Your Loved One Heal?
Of course, what you really want to know is if your loved one will heal. While it’s certainly not possible to say that everyone will heal from trauma, with proper treatment and adequate time, many people do. Suffice to say that the best thing you can do to help your loved one overcome trauma is to be a constant, loving, and reassuring presence. This unconditional love and much-needed support will prove invaluable as your loved one navigates the sometimes difficult and often confusing path toward recovery.