Knowing what to say
If a family member, friend or even a colleague confides in you by sharing their traumatic experience, it can be difficult to know what to say or how you should respond.
Watching someone you care for and love struggle with trauma can be extremely difficult. It’s natural to want to take their pain away and support them through this challenging time.
“Often a person who has disclosed a traumatic event, whether a recent event or a long time ago, wants to be heard,” says Di Young, senior psychotherapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private, a treatment center with rehab programs dedicated to healing trauma. “It takes courage to tell their story. They will hope that you can sit with their pain, many unfortunately can’t.”
If this is a new experience for us, our instincts in responding may be off. We might seek to talk too much because we want to ease tension, or seek to minimise the experience as a way of avoiding our own distress and discomfort.
Instead, Di says, we should take a moment to acknowledge the enormous trust placed in us by the person who has made the disclosure. The person sharing their trauma is often looking for validation and empathy, Di says. “They need you to listen and empathise, they need unconditional support and love."
• A straightforward way of honouring the trust placed in us is by directly acknowledging it. You might say "it must have taken tremendous courage to share this with me" or "I want you to know I deeply respect the trust you've placed in me by sharing this” or just simply “Thank you for trusting me with this."
• Give the person space to speak about the elements they feel comfortable with, don't try to fill the silence and don't try to press them to divulge details or relive the experience. You can, however, ask them how it feels to have shared their story, and acknowledge how difficult this moment must be. It is important for you to breathe through this, it can be very difficult to hear their story and their pain.
• Focus on non-judgmental, compassionate responses which help reduce shame. You might say "I'm so sorry you had to experience that," or "you didn't deserve that, and you deserve support now," or "I want you to know you're not alone," or "you did what you have to do to survive."
• You should not try to hide genuine emotion, but do try to respond in a calm and even way without becoming outraged on their behalf – this is about giving them space and holding their pain, not making yourself the central character or immediately charting a plan of action.
Compounding Trauma: What not to say
For those of us with a natural inclination to try to fix things, holding back and just stitting with the moment can be difficult. "When someone tells you something significant about a traumatic experience, what they don’t need is advice-giving," Young says. Even if it's because we're genuinely trying to help, it can often come off as judgmental or minimisation if we offer unprompted advice like "have you tried this?" or "why don’t you do that?"
Some of the worst responses are those which can compound shame and self-doubt, even if they're well-intentioned. Young says statements such as "you'll get over it", "it wasn't that bad" or "what's wrong with you?" can be particularly damaging. “They're not helpful for the person suffering with a significant mental illness and can actually make things worse,” Young explains.
Even if you hope to encourage an individual to seek professional support and treatment, report an incident to authorities or take another course of action, the first step should always be to listen and empathise. “Only when the person has received an open, non-judgemental response, may they be open to practical support, possible treatment avenues and professional help,” says Young.
While talking about trauma can be painful and upsetting, the support of family and friends is often. Don’t insist on talking if they don’t want to, but if they are open to speaking about their experience or feelings, make sure you're there to listen.
A wide range of experiences have the capacity to inflict long-term trauma, from sudden, life-threatening events to longer-term, ongoing traumatic experiences, such as recurring abuse or parental neglect. However, any situation that leaves us feeling overwhelmed, desperate and isolated can result in trauma.
Just as physical trauma can leave lasting scars, so too can psychological and emotional trauma. While most of us might experience negative psychological responses following traumatic events, over time we can expect them to fade and disappear. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its more common variant, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, are diagnosed when these symptoms persist or intensify for months or begin to interfere with our ability to function normally in our daily lives.
We may feel anxious, upset, numb, sad, agitated or overwhelmed. We may be filled with rage or emotionally-frozen, finding connection and expression near impossible. Often, these symptoms begin immediately or several weeks after a traumatic experience, but sometimes symptoms can take months or years to develop, which can be especially confusing and distressing.
Take someone like Kate for example – not her real name – who has recently gone through a tough divorce and is now struggling with anxiety and depression. Growing up as the eldest child with a single mum who was an alcoholic, she always felt she had to be the perfect one, keeping it all together.
When her marriage ended, it triggered all her feelings from childhood – the shame, the sense of failure, that nagging feeling that something was wrong with her and she was responsible for it all. "More complex cases of long-running trauma like that can have a very significant impact on people's lives," young says.
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