As soon as Tracey could get away, she ran. It took nearly all night to find the right moment when her date had finally fallen sufficiently asleep that she could remove his arm off her body. She silently grabbed her clothes from around the room, putting on enough items to leave the apartment. Carefully, she opened the door and took off running in the opposite direction without a thought of where she was headed. After she got far enough away, she called a friend to pick her up and reluctantly phoned the police.
Hours later, she went home with her friend. Once inside the familiar walls, she shrank into a ball on the floor, crying uncontrollably. The date which began well, ended in disaster, leaving Tracey shaken, broken, fearful, ashamed, disgusted, and traumatized. Her friend tried to comfort Tracey with a hug but she quickly withdrew and locked herself in the bathroom. When Tracey came out, her friend was patiently waiting and offered her support.
Trauma comes in a multitude of forms. It can happen anytime, anyplace, and with anyone. Most people will experience several traumatic moments during their lifetime, ranging from mild to severe. So it stands to reason that family or friends would already know how to comfort a traumatized person because they have experienced trauma themselves. But most do not and sadly they do an unintentionally poor job that sometimes results in re-traumatizing the victim.
Here are ten things to keep in mind when offering support to a victim:
- Listen. The most important element in showing support is to fully listen. This means not interrupting, asking questions, or wanting a detailed recount. Instead, the victim needs to be able to express his or her words and emotions freely without any comment other than, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” Responding with, “It’s not that bad,” or “You can get over this,” can be very hurtful.
- Be present. Being physically, emotionally, and mentally present for another person is the ultimate selfless act, however it requires considerable concentration. It is easy to become emotionally triggered by witnessing someone else’s grief and being reminded of past events. Being present means living fully in the current moment and not allowing the mind to drift to another time or place.
- Reassure safety. Trauma releases hormones into the body to help a person survive. This freeze, flight or fight response is natural and normal. However, it takes approximately 36-72 hours of trauma-free moments for the body to reset. One of the best ways to reduce the time is by reassuring the person’s safety. “You are safe,” repeated as many times as needed, can be very comforting.
- Allow for grieving. Traumatic events can bring on the grieving process. The stages of grief are usually experienced in a pinball-like fashion, randomly jumping from one to the next with little to no warning. They are denial (“I can’t believe this happened), anger (“I’m so mad at this”), bargaining (“If only I had…”), depression (“I don’t want to see anyone”), and acceptance (“This is part of my story”). It can take months to years to fully complete the grieving process depending on the person and the situation.
- Avoid comparing. This is not the time to share horror stories of past events or try to relate to a victim by claiming, “I know how you feel because this happened to me.” Nor is it a time to share another person’s trauma and how they were able to recover quickly. The quickest way to healing is by allowing the victim to experience his or her own unique thoughts and feelings without the pressure to live up to some arbitrary standard.
- Assist with decisions. During a traumatic event, the brain is operating in survival mode which is part of the pre-frontal cortex. While this is needed in order to live through the moment, the executive functioning part of the brain (the mid-brain) is not operating at full capacity. Simple decisions can be difficult at this time so assistance from a trusted person is essential.
- Protect privacy. A person’s trauma is just that, their trauma. It is not for others to share unless asked to do so. Protecting the victim’s privacy reinforces safety which helps provide comfort, understanding, and support. Gossip is a strong temptation after a traumatic moment which alone can destroy friendships and re-traumatize the victim.
- Lend an everyday hand. Simple acts including preparing a meal, filling up a gas tank, going to the grocery story, doing laundry, scheduling appointments, and screening phone calls can be very useful to the victim. These ordinary tasks require huge amounts of effort for victims and can leave them feeling depleted at a time when all of their energy should be on recovery.
- Give space and time. The key here is patience. Be tolerant of the victim’s need for occasional isolation. Don’t set an arbitrary time period when the victim should fully recover. Instead, allow the victim some leniency in his or her desire to withdraw, recount, or emote. However, any talk or sign of self-harming behavior should be discussed immediately with a professional counselor or doctor.
- Respect any boundaries. It is typical for a victim to demand new boundaries following a traumatic event. This is done because the victim is reluctant to trust their own judgement. The boundaries will likely change in the future as the victim gains greater perception several months or even years later. But for now, respect their new guidelines.
Tracey’s friend did a masterful job in all ten of these steps. As a result, the friendship between the two grew stronger, and Tracey’s recovery and healing was completed.