As an advocate and educator, I am frequently asked about the best ways to support survivors of trauma immediately after an incident, and long term. One of the best starting points in becoming part of a strong support system, is understanding how thoroughly experiencing a traumatic event can impact someone’s life. Potentially every aspect of wellness may be impacted by the traumatic experience. Those who has been traumatized are frequently shaken to the core.
“Trauma can alter a person to such a degree that … the memory of one particular event comes to taint and dominate all other experiences spoiling an appreciation of the present moment sleep becomes the enemy, life becomes colorless”Peter A. Levine, PhD
Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in Search of the Living Past
What Does It Mean to Be Well?
Over time, I’ve adopted a broader interpretation of the phrase “health, wellness, and wellbeing.” Being healthy requires personal investment in physical fitness, diet and nutrition. But, to be healthy, one must also nourish the mind, honor emotions and live and work in line with one’s core values. Being healthy means nurturing that artistic and creative side of yourself, whether that means taking a photography class, dancing the night away, or singing in the shower. It means connecting to the larger world through social activities, volunteerism, or civic engagement. Cultivating the whole self requires a sense of scale, stepping back now and then to look at the larger picture to keep life in perspective. That may mean having faith, raising awareness, connecting to nature, or appreciating the vastness of the ocean. Victims of abuse and assault often withdraw from those activities that once brought pleasure. There are various reasons for this constriction, shrinking of one’s world , from an attempt to avoid reminders to the fear others will not understand or believe.
What to Expect While You Support Survivors of Trauma
Victims react to trauma differently, and have unique symptoms. But there are patterns in what victims go through and their reactions. One thing that is almost universally true is that experiencing trauma, resulting from sexual violence, impacts every aspect of a victim’s health and wellbeing.
Common Emotional Responses
Emotionally, victims of sexual violence go through periods of numbness and periods of reliving. When they are reliving, their body reacts as though they’re actually experiencing the assault again. Once they are able to feel, they’re afraid, anxious, depressed and angry. Victims experience a loss of control, leading to feeling vulnerable and helpless. They also feel guilt and shame. These intense emotions inevitably impact their relationships, and their performance at school or work. They’re not able to handle the stressors they could before. They’re easily overwhelmed and can feel unable to connect to themselves or others.
Common Cognitive Responses
Mentally, victims have trouble with memory and concentration. They have psychological clutter. They’re unable to let thoughts go, sift through them, organize or prioritize them. They are less decisive, often unable to make what were once simple decisions. Time speeds up and slows down, making it difficult for them to meet obligations or keep appointments. Victims of sexual violence will often try to avoid things that act as triggers or reminders. They may become suicidal.
Common Physical Responses
Physically, victims experience digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), decreased appetite, or nausea. They also frequently feel stress, fatigue, dizziness, or faint. Some victims are exhausted and sleep for long periods, others experience insomnia. They have nightmares, night terrors, and some even report waking nightmares. Victims have described trembling, having their heart race, and sweating. They express feeling on edge, jumpy, and easily startled. Being startled can trigger reliving the physical experience of the assault. Their immune system is often compromised, and there can be long term effects on the liver, heart or other organs.
Common Behavioral Responses
The is no one set response to trauma, but there are patterns in reaction. Some reactions, if they show up, tend to appear shortly after the incident, or incidents that caused the trauma. Others tend to show up at least six months later. There may be noticeable differences in person’s behavior years later. Some shifts become permanent. Many victims of abuse and assault become argumentative, distant, or apathetic as a result. They may have difficulty expressing themselves, or become frustrated and overwhelmed more easily. Dramatic shifts in sleep quantity and schedule, eating habits, and hygiene are warning signs of depression. Giving away personal possessions, talking about having no reason to live, or a conversation that feel like a goodbye are indicators someone might attempt suicide that should be taken seriously.
One of the things that creates dissonance and disconnection is unvoiced and unaddressed pain. Victims may have made a conscious or inadvertent decision, at some point, to suppress their feelings. They may have attempted to share their experience and received a negative response. The emotions may have been overwhelming, more than they could process immediately after the assault. Once those emotions are suppressed or buried, victims may avoid introspection for fear of uncovering the pain and trauma.
The pain of trauma does not remain hidden or suppressed. Victims cannot go over it, around it, or shove it under a rug. Society, and a person’s support networks, may encourage and enable a victim’s denial of emotion or pain. They may mean well, leading them to be dismissive of what they see as “negative” or “unproductive” emotion. It may be uncomfortable for them to see the victim in pain, or angry, or feeling helpless. Perhaps seeing the trauma of the victim reminds them of their own suppressed and hidden emotions. They may feel unable to do anything that would help.
If victims do not sit with an emotion and let themselves feel it, it finds a place inside them to reside. Once hidden, it will eat at them, severing the connection to themselves, and then resurface from time to time. Judith Herman found this important enough a point that she addressed it on the first page of her groundbreaking book:
“The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.Herman, Judith L.
Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. Equally as powerful as the desire to deny atrocities is the conviction that denial does not work.”
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
She understood that we not only need to feel pain, sorrow, and heartache, but we need others to understand that feeling these emotions is an essential part of healthy recovery and resilience.
Support Survivors of Trauma Involves Listening without Judgement
One of the things that startled me when I started volunteering as an advocate, was how many loved-ones called, or came in, for services. The pain of trauma is not only felt by the victim. Loved ones often feel helpless. Sometimes they are desperate to understand, others are determined to help, but do not know how.
Being there for, and present with, someone can speak louder than any words.
Beyond any need for medical attention, survivors need people they trust, people who care. They need reassurance that they’re not at fault, not to blame. Victim-blaming is prevalent in our society. Supporters should be careful not to ask questions or phrase statements in ways that might further traumatize survivors. As a general rule, avoid questions that begin with the word “Why.” These questions can insinuate judgement. Supporters should avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as judgmental, or conveys disbelief.
If you are not sure what to say, tell them!
“I am not sure how to respond to what you just told me, Im so sorry that happened to you. You did nothing to deserve it. But I do know, what your going through now is a normal and natural response to what happened, that I love you, and I am here for you.”
The terms “victim” and “survivor” can be impactful, and a preference for one over the other is exceedingly personal. Try to listen to and mimic the phrasing choices of a survivor, both with identity terminology and in reference to aspects of their traumatic experience. Don’t use the word “rape”, for instance, if the survivor is calling it “an incident”.
Survivors need to talk about what happened, to tell their stories, to be heard and believed. One of the best ways to support survivors of trauma after they open up, is to remind them that what happened was not their fault, and their reactions to the incident is normal.
Trauma is a normal response to abnormal circumstances.
They need someone to be present, but not try to affect their emotional state. Someone who can sit with them through anger, fear, sorrow, vulnerability, or confusion. It can be difficult to witness minimization or denial, but it is best to be with a survivor wherever they are at that moment. Sometimes, victims just need someone to sit in silence or provide a shoulder to cry on. Do not press for them to tell you more, or try to problem solve. Just listen, tell them you care. Be there when they need you, give them space when they ask for it.
Survivors feel vulnerable and frail. They need to feel more confident,empowered. Dependence on others won’t help them restore a sense of independence and self-reliance. Whenever possible, it’s best to be supportive, but not do everything for a survivor. Most importantly, let them make their own decisions, whether or not you agree with their choices.
Healing Processes are Not Linear
There is no set way to recover or set timelines for healing. It may be a process that is never complete. The ways that survivors cope and the process of recover varies. Some coping mechanisms leave victims more vulnerable than others, such as substance abuse or engaging in risky sexual practices. Support groups and/or counseling can be very helpful during recovery. Friends and family should never try to act as a substitute for professional help.
Recovery tends to be a lengthy, difficult process. There may be dramatic shifts in a survivor’s personality and identity. Healing is typically not a linear progression, there are good days and bad days, ups and downs. Survivors are likely on an “emotional roller coaster”. As a friend or family member, it’s helpful to educate yourself about the impact of trauma and the recovery process.
Supporting Survivors of Trauma Doesn’t Require Sacrificing Your Own Wellbeing
Providing support for survivors of trauma, while they’re healing, isn’t simple or easy. Be sure you’re also taking extra care of yourself. Like a survivor, supporters may feel sad, angry, confused, or anxious. They may also have a sense of disbelief or be compelled to deny and minimize. Sometimes, family and friends feel guilt, take on a sense of blame. Crisis centers often provide services for friends and family. Supporters should utilize, take advantage, of available resources. And remember, people can’t be helpful to others without first taking care of their own health and wellbeing.
With Time, and Support, Survivors Can Heal
With time, survivors are often able to feel whole and healthy again, to reclaim a sense of self, and feel safe and secure. This is a more likely outcome when they have the support of loved ones and the availability of community resources.