“We’ve offered advice and you ignore it. You’re using your trauma as an excuse to abandon us.”
My friend’s words stung, but they didn’t surprise me. For several years I’d been trying to sort out my PTS symptoms–fear, psychological/emotional paralysis, numbness, triggers, and the confusion that had overtaken my life– and explain my struggles to a small group of friends.
Unfortunately, my they didn’t understand a critical fact about trauma and post-traumatic stress (PTS):
People don’t respond to or recover from trauma the same way.
Over the course of several years, I’d worked with a number of mental health practitioners to alleviate my anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, and other PTS symptoms. Most of my therapists used talk therapy, which did not have an influence on my symptoms. Friends became frustrated with my emotional withdrawal and offered well-intentioned advice and recommendations about the changes they believed I needed to make.
What I needed most was a safe environment.
I needed a safe environment to talk to people who understood or were willing to learn about the realities of post-traumatic stress. I didn’t need answers , I needed compassionate listeners.
My trauma history was substantial. I didn’t realize this until a trauma therapist asked me to create a trauma timeline during a PTSD intensive that effectively recoded my traumatic experiences. My childhood traumas included saving an adult from electrocution and sexual assault; as a teenager I was pursued and threatened by a man armed with a knife, witnessed a violent death, and was sexually assaulted; as an adult I experienced the traumatic birth of my first child, numerous potentially deadly accidents involving my children, life-threatening personal illnesses that required multiple hospitalizations and brain surgery; caring for loved ones with terminal illness as well as a friend with volatile complex post-traumatic stress (CPTS).
My friends did not understand the chaos inside my head from decades of compounding, untreated trauma. They also could not understand the daily realities implications of living with brain stem illness and the after-effects of brain surgery. Although they wanted to help me, they offered advice based upon their experience and what to them appeared to be solutions.
The more people understand about post-traumatic stress, the more support they can offer.
So why don’t people respond to and heal from trauma the same way?
A number of key factors influence the way a person processes a traumatic experience.
- Factors that have influenced a person’s life BEFORE the trauma: 1)Their ability to cope with stress, as well as their overall mental health, 2) previous exposure to trauma, 3) family support 4) family mental health.
- Factors about the person’s life that influence their RESPONSE TO the trauma: 1) the event’s meaning to the victim (perpetrator a stranger -vs.- family member), 2) their support system from family and friends, and 3) their ability to obtain professional help immediately following the trauma.
- CIRCUMSTANCES OF the trauma: 1) the age at which the trauma occurred, 2) the duration of time over which the trauma occurred (a single event -vs.- multiple events; duration of time of the event itself), 3) sense of ongoing threat, 4) lack of control, 4) whether or not multiple types of traumas occurred in the life of the person (natural disasters, sexual abuse, domestic violence, separation at birth, etc.).
- New trauma can trigger old trauma: People with a history of trauma can be more susceptible to new trauma. A study of military veterans affected by the Boston Marathon bombing found that many of the veterans reported flashbacks to combat experiences, elevated anxiety, psychological numbness, nightmares and heightened anger.
The more “big T” trauma experiences in a person’s past, the greater the likelihood they may
develop post-traumatic symptoms if they are confronted with a new trauma.
Research demonstrates that there is a wide range of recoverability from traumatic events. Not everyone has the same reaction to trauma or recovers in the same way or in a set time frame. Various factors influence how individuals recover from a traumatic event. For instance, a person’s coping strategies are vitally important:
- Talking to a friend
- Joining a support group
- Taking time to absorb the trauma and adjust
- Reestablishing healthy routines
- Seeking counsel
Negative coping responses can include
- Refusing to talk about the event
- Withdrawal and isolation
These negative responses can lead to increased negative symptoms, such as depression, emotional numbing, anger and rage, insomnia, and even abusive behavior.
So how can you support a friend with PTS?
- Learn as much as possible about trauma and post-traumatic stress.
- Don’t judge them and give answers. Listen and give input when asked.
- Don’t compare your life to theirs.
- Respect them even in their struggles.
- Affirm and empathize when things are tough for them.
- Admit that you don’t understand just how they feel but you care and are there for them.
- Give them permission to make mistakes (just like you do) and forgive them.
- Give them space when they need it. Certain circumstances and situations will be difficult for them–try to understand.
- Don’t belittle, make harsh remarks, or talk about them to others.
- Encourage positive self-talk and self-esteem.
- Ask them to lunch, coffee, shop, exercise, and ask what activities feel comfortable to them.
- Don’t try to lead. Come alongside as an encourager and advocate.