by Jessica Yaffa, BA, CPC
Often when we think of the word trauma we imagine a gory scene from a movie that includes significant violence, injury, and direct physical harm. The fact of the matter is that trauma can be anything that the individual who has experienced this challenge(s) identifies as unmanageable or overwhelming. For the purposes of this article, we can define trauma as an experience that outweighs a person’s ability to cope. Some examples of trauma might include:
- Abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, psychological)
- Domestic violence or intimate partner violence
- Severe mental illness
- Medical events (illness, invasive treatments)
- Loss of a loved one
- Discrimination and racism
- Issues surrounding substance use
The following is a list of statements that are often made in an effort to provide comfort or a sense of understanding that can be inadvertently harmful:
1. “It could not have been that bad.” A traumatic experience should never be undermined, minimized, or ignored. What may be traumatizing to someone, may not be traumatizing to another person. This statement not only minimizes someone’s traumatic experience, but it also sends the message that the person is overreacting.
2. “You are past that now, so move on.” The person needs time to process the traumatic situation, work through it in their mind and heart, and come to a place of acceptance. Every person is different, and the length of the healing process is unique to each person.
3. “If you keep dwelling on it you’ll never move on.” This statement can make a person feel guilty about having feelings and thoughts about the trauma. We cannot put a time-frame on grief. Ever.
4. “You are so negative.” Being “negative” could be a symptom of a bigger problem such as depression, anxiety, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence.
5. “Stop being a victim because you are a survivor.” Being a “survivor” is categorized by having lived through a traumatic experience and can’t be categorized by a person’s response or reaction.
6. “When will you stop being depressed?” Depression is a complicated disorder that can come and go and, depending on the severity of the trauma, it can change from mild to severe and be recurrent.
7. “You need to report what happened.” Someone who has experienced trauma went through something that was completely out of his or her control. Therefore, it is critical that you do not try to control how they choose to cope with what happened. Everyone copes with trauma differently and it is up to the survivor to decide how they wish to proceed.
8. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” For many survivors of trauma, it can be incredibly difficult to talk about what happened to them, in part due to a fear of not being believed, feelings of intense guilt and shame, or their worry that the perpetrator could retaliate. Rather than shaming the person for not disclosing sooner, emphasize the strength that it took them to share with you the trauma that they endured.
9. “Why are you so uptight?” Feeling edgy or jittery is not a choice for people with PTSD. Even with effective treatment, some people with PTSD still have symptoms, and the symptoms can erupt unexpectedly. If you’re thrown off by the way a person with PTSD reacts to you being in their space or to something you said, give them the benefit of the doubt.
10. “It could be worse.” This is true. For every single human being alive right now. Because other people’s problems are worse than mine does not make my own easier to live with. And the idea that I am complaining when “there are people who have it so much harder” than me, makes me feel guilty for feeling anything in the first place.
Some things to consider saying to a trauma survivor instead:
1. “This isn’t fair.” Even though we all know life really isn’t fair sometimes, sugarcoating suffering doesn’t help the traumatized person. One of the many gifts we can give our loved one is the ability to share honestly how unfair everything feels.
2. “I’ll be here for you with the same dedication as long as you need me to be.” There isn’t a timeline on recovery. Some people heal faster than they or their helpers expect. For others, healing can be harder than the experience itself. And it can be a cyclical process: one month seemingly symptom-free and the next painfully reverses progress. Sustained support is imperative for those who have experienced trauma.
3. “What happened to you was not your fault.” You were not responsible for this and you certainly did not deserve it.
4. “Healing takes time but it is completely possible.” There are many stages of healing following a trauma, and everyone copes with this process differently. It’s important to note for your loved one that healing and coping with the impact of trauma can take time, but it is completely possible.
5. Provide practical support. Do enjoyable things with them, and encourage them to plan to do at least one enjoyable thing each day. You may need to help them come up with some ideas by asking them what activities they used to enjoy before the traumatic event, or making some suggestions.
6. “Would it be helpful to talk about (the event)?” Give them permission to choose either way. Offering a survivor the opportunity to choose provides them a sense of control that may have been lost.
Lastly, it is especially important that you also have support. Being in relationship with someone who has experienced trauma, and is suffering as a result, can be emotionally draining and confusing for those who love them. Please be sure to take care of yourself in this process as well.