Do you know someone who has difficulty in concentrating, experiences anger, irritability, frequent mood swings along with anxiety and fear, feels guilty about certain experiences in life, is withdrawing from others, feels sad, hopeless, or feels disconnected/ numb? The person may have witnessed a traumatic event in their life.
Research suggests that 70% of adults in the U.S. that’s 223.4 million people have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.
According to A.P.A, Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.
Here is a list of 15 helpful things to say to someone with trauma:
- “I see you’re in pain. It’s OK to feel this way.”
Someone who has experienced trauma has witnessed something that we probably would’ve never even imagined. They might also be angry at themselves for being upset, in addition to beating themselves up for having endured the trauma. Remind them that you can see the pain, it isn’t all in their head. Their feelings are valid and they have every right to feel this way.
2. “Your symptoms make sense given what you’ve been through.”
Their uncontrolled emotional breakdowns were not because they are selfish, but because they were in indescribable pain. You’re not broken, weird, or hopeless. They are worthy of love and belonging. Trauma is real, what they went through was real and not something that someone can easily go through.
3. “What has happened doesn’t define you.”
The survivor is so much more than just a victim. They are brave and courageous for being able to go through this, they are tough and strong for being able to hold on, they are beautiful, they are courageous, they are tenacious. They are so much more than their trauma. The trauma isn’t who they are.
4. “The worst isn’t happening again, even though it may feel that way.”
When the traumatic memory is cued, a flashback happens and makes it feel as though the trauma is occurring all over again. In many ways, the survivors find themselves experiencing the traumatic event repeatedly. They may experience intrusive thoughts where they get images and sensations from the event that they cannot block out. With these, it can be hard for them to focus and function normally. Remind them about their present surrounding, keep talking to them to help divert their mind.
5. “You didn’t deserve that.”
Through these words, you communicate two necessary pieces for healing – compassion, and validation that this event took place. You assure them that you will not leave them alone which is a major fear for most survivors.
6. “How may I help you?”
By offering choices, you create liberty for the survivor, a liberty that did not exist during the traumatic experience. Choices are an important tool for healing and empowerment. Offering informed choices often establish a boundary, the very boundary that was crossed during the trauma, that exists in any healthy relationship.
7. “What happened to you was never your fault.”
If someone close to them was hurt or killed, they could blame themselves and feel bad that they did not avoid it somehow, even if it wasn’t in their control. Healing from trauma happens with empowering the victim. What happened to them, should never have happened and they did not deserve that. Acknowledge this emotion, validate them.
8. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I will do my best to be there and to never judge.”
If someone has been assaulted by another person, particularly if they have been caught off guard, it can be difficult to know who they can trust. They may begin to doubt others, feeling like, “if that person could hurt me, why not this person?” It is not uncommon, to wall themselves off from others to defend themselves. Reassure them that you are here now and that you won’t leave them or judge them for what happened.
9. “It’s okay to be hurt and angry, these feelings don’t make you a bad person.”
After a trauma, it is not unusual for the survivors to begin to see themselves in some way as being “less than other”. Perhaps they mean they are weak to “letting it happen.” As with many beliefs related to trauma, survivors are sometimes more critical of themselves than they need to be. Telling them that they are strong and not weak is a way in which you can reassure them and help them feel better about themselves.
10. “I don’t understand the signs and symptoms, but I believe you and I support you.”
We can’t possibly imagine what the person is going through because we may have never experienced something like this. That doesn’t mean that we can’t support them and believe in them. They need your support and they need someone to believe in them, be that someone for the survivor.
11. “You are inspiring. Even if you don’t see it, the growth you’ve made is remarkable.”
It takes a lot to recover from the trauma and the survivor may not always see the progress that they have made. Remind them that they are making progress every day and that you see it. Acknowledge their efforts.
12. “You are not alone, no matter how much it feels like it.”
The feeling of isolation is compounded after the traumatic experience, by the belief that atrocities are “unspeakable” events. Trauma often makes the survivors feel like they are all alone as no one will be able to understand them. Reassure them that they are not alone even though they may feel that way. Stay with them and help them feel better. Let them feel your presence in their lives.
13. “You are loved and cherished.”
A survivor may feel ashamed, guilty, anxious, etc which may make him/her feel like they aren’t loved. Remind them that they are loved, cherished, and appreciated despite how they must be feeling about themselves. Give them love and help them feel better.
14. “I have been here before. Just know that I am here for you and you will get better.”
Even if you have a very similar experience, let the survivor first share with you what they want to share. Since coming forward, the survivor needs care and support, so it would be a good time to say something like “We stand in solidarity” at the end of the discussion. I’m still a survivor. Just know that I honor your experience and with you, I am healing. Consider that the survivor may assess their experience and their answer to it as smaller or greater than by sharing the details of your experience. If you feel a need to talk as a fellow survivor (and all survivors deserve a safe space to tell their stories), consider inviting the participant to group therapy or group discussion, or at a later point simply revisit the conversation.
15. “I’m sorry this happened to you. I will be keeping you in my thoughts and prayers.”
If you do not have a close relationship with the survivor or do not wish to play an active role in their ongoing healing process, say something that is comforting for the survivor. In other words, if you don’t want accountability, don’t say anything. You intensify the feeling of betrayal that happened during the traumatic encounter if the survivor reaches out to you with a request, and you do not work to accommodate it.
In conclusion, don’t remain quiet. Speak to the victim and tell him that you are sorry for what happened to them. Don’t advise a survivor or compare the experience of one survivor to another. Be compassionate, follow your invitations and commitments, and continue to offer choices.
By Seth J. Gillihan Ph.D. (September 7, 2016) 21 Common Reactions to Trauma. Retrieved February 9, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/201609/21-common-reactions-trauma
By Eating Recovery Center (June 21, 2017) 25 Helpful Things to Say to a Loved One With PTSD. Retrieved February 9, 2021, from https://themighty.com/2017/06/what-to-say-loved-one-ptsd/
American Psychological Association, Retrieved February 9, 2021, from, https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma#:~:text=Trauma%20is%20an%20emotional%20response,symptoms%20like%20headaches%20or%20nausea.