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5 Things To Do When Your Friend Tells You About Trauma

Published:
December 14, 2023
October 9, 2023
Learn how to help someone with trauma by following this author's advice.

Over 80% of people in the world will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, yet only about a tenth of those are left “traumatized,” or with diagnosable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the most significant factors in whether or not a person develops PTSD is the support that they receive surrounding the event – whether they are believed, whether they are provided with resources, and whether they are able to regain a sense of safety, control, and empowerment. 

If you are a person in the world who interacts with other people (i.e., everyone!), chances are, at some point, someone you are close to will tell you about something traumatic that happened to them. These moments are an honor; someone trusts you enough to tell you one of the most painful things that has ever happened to them, and they count on you to hold them in that moment. Yet they can also be scary, and leave you filled with uncertainty. How do I respond? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I just make it worse? How do I “fix” my friend?  While there is no set script to use when someone tells you about their trauma, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Believe them.

Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand what happened? Are you sure you’re not overreacting? Did you send the wrong signals? What if you tried looking at it like this ____? 

Questions like this have no place in your response to your friend. You are not a detective or an inquisitor, and minimizing their experience will not help them feel better. The most important thing that you can do for your friend is to believe them, and let them know emphatically that you believe them. This may be the first time they have ever shared their story. Let them know that they are heard, safe, and loved. Their experience is their own, and it deserves to be honored. 

2. Let them lead.

What happened next? How did it feel? What were you thinking? How many times did it happen? What exactly did he/she do? 

Often we ask these types of questions because we want to show that we’re listening and don’t know what else to say. But they can be too much for someone beginning to explore what happened to them, and making them delve too specifically into their story before they’re ready can actually increase their trauma symptoms. Let your friend lead in telling their story. Give them the freedom to share only what they feel comfortable with sharing, and trust them to know how much sharing they are ready to do in that moment. Never force disclosure. Be present, listen, and receive what your friend wants to share with you. 

3. Normalize their response. 

Reactions to trauma vary widely – from accepting and moving on quickly with no formal treatment, to turning inward and cutting others off, to lashing out in anger, to engaging in behaviors that they would never otherwise engage in. All of these responses are completely normal. 

Our brain’s number one job is to keep us alive. In the face of trauma, it causes our body to react in a way that maximizes our chance of survival. Think fight, flight, or freeze. 

One of the signs of PTSD is that the body’s response does not stop when the traumatic event ceases. Trauma actually rewires our brains and our nervous systems, and it changes how we interact with the world. The amygdala, which assesses threat, becomes hyperactive, sensing danger where there is none present. And when confronted with danger, the lower, primitive brain takes over, and the upper, rational brain takes a back seat. This can lead to feeling out of control, difficulty with sorting through incoming stimuli, and trouble accessing one’s sense of self and feelings of pleasure, excitement, and connection.

All of this makes sense as a way for our brains to protect us in the face of trauma. Yet once the traumatic stressor has passed, it can be extremely frustrating to feel stuck in that trauma response. 

Reassure your friend that any thoughts, feelings, actions, and wants in the moment of or in the days, months, or years following the traumatic event are 100% normal as their body tries to protect itself in the best way that it knows how. Let your friend know that it is okay to not be okay. And that, however they are feeling now, they will not feel that way forever.  

4. Leave the platitudes behind.

Everything happens for a reason. 

It’s all in God’s hands.

The silver lining is that ______. 

Stop dwelling on the past – it’s time to move forward. 

Don’t play the victim card. 

At least it wasn’t worse. 

It is normal to want to say something to our friend that will make them feel better, and to not quite know what to say. This can lead us to turn to trite phrases that actually serve to invalidate our friend’s experience. Just like it is okay for our friend to not be okay, it is okay for us to not know what to say to them. In these moments, you can say something like:

Wow. Thank you for sharing that with me. I don’t even know what to say. But I want you to know that I love you, I support you, I’m here for you, and I believe you. 

5. Help them find the resources they need. 

Remember: it is not your job to “fix” your friend, and it can be harmful to both of you if you try and end up taking on more than you can handle. It can be helpful, on the other hand, to connect them with someone who can help – namely, a qualified therapist who specializes in trauma. Especially for someone in crisis, it can be daunting to go through the process of finding a therapist. You can use a website like Psychology Today to help sort therapists by specialty and insurance network, present some options to your friend, and encourage them to take the difficult first step of reaching out. 

***

Above all, be a friend. They are coming to you not as a detective, a therapist, a social worker, or a judge – they are coming to you as a friend, and this is the time to pull out the absolute best friendship and support skills that you have to offer. 

Creators:
Megan O’Brien Crayne
Published:
December 14, 2023
October 9, 2023
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