TRAUMA: Helping Friends
The definition of trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma covers a wide variety of situations and for this article, I will not cover domestic abuse here because this topic needs specific support and training. Imagine dropping a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples move out until they meet the edge of the pond. At the edge, the effect of the pebble is still apparent. Trauma has a similar effect, where the ripples can affect you as well as others.
So here are a few ideas that can assist you when a friend is going through trauma.
1. Put on your own oxygen mask before you help another.
It is important to try and ensure that you don’t suffer vicarious trauma. This is second hand trauma that can occur when someone relates a story to you and you feel it too personally. Therapists who work very empathically with clients can experience this and one of the ways they manage, is to have robust supervision that provides them space to off-load their burden. This helps them to separate themselves to a degree from the client. Thus, it is vital that you don’t carry the load alone. Ideally it would be better if you did not carry it at all but when it is a friend who is suffering, it is very hard to stand at arm’s length.
2. Remain balanced yourself.
This ensures that you do not sink under the load by having more going on in your life. It is very important to:
• Have fun and laughter that does not make you feel guilty.
• Breathe deeply in fresh air to replenish you.
• Rest, an active verb, is also vital to restore you when you have spent time with a traumatised person.
• Read a good book that takes you out of this world and into an imaginary space is restorative too, as is a good film if you don’t want to read.
3. Walking with the wounded.
Look for additional support for the both of you. That means suggesting and possibly researching the best support for the friend and getting advice for yourself.
• Locate therapeutic help. Check out local agencies that provide counselling and victim support. They should be able to direct you to other agencies if they cannot help you themselves.
• Learn to listen not advise. It is a skill to listen. Focus on what is being said rather than trying to solve the situation. Be present, look at your friend. It is okay to cry with them.
• Remember that you don’t know how they feel, so please don’t say you do. You may understand the situation but it can be very minimising to have their trauma compared to what had happened to someone else.
4. Give them what you have.
If you are not balanced you will sink under the burden, so share the load (with their permission). It is okay to not be traumatised yourself. Often people feel bad that they are not suffering too, but if you are robust you may be able to provide them with balance; a place just to be without expectations. Provide a dinner or a film for the family. If they have children, just minding their children for a few hours, will be of great benefit.
Sometimes traumatised people just need someone to turn up with a meal. It is hard to think straight when you are badly hurt.
Normal activities can feel overwhelming. So even putting on a load of washing, helping them to shop or accompanying them to appointments can be invaluable.
5. You are enough.
I commenced this article by warning against second hand trauma and advising against saying that you know how they feel. However, you do have an imagination and by putting your mind tentatively in a similar position, you will be able to imagine what they may need.
• Someone at the end of the phone.
• Someone to have coffee with.
• Someone who will not fall under the burden, but will shoulder it safely with them.
• Someone who will tell them that they are not alone and that the feelings are normal.
• Someone who will suggest extra help if they need it. (find out about agencies, therapists, or even support groups)
• Someone who will say nothing but just be with them.
• Someone who will not judge or measure them.
• Someone who is not afraid of their own feelings.
I have worked for many years as a therapist and the first question I ask my clients is, ‘do you have any support?’ Those who have friends around them find the journey easier to bear.
Susie Flashman Jarvis is an accredited counsellor, speaker and ambassador for the charity Restored working towards bringing an end to violence against women. Check out Susie’s latest radio interview here. Susie’s novel, At Therapy’s End, tackles the issue of domestic abuse. Susie is also an executive coach based in the UK and is available for skype sessions. Susie may be contacted via her website.