Helping a Loved One with Trauma

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is a response to an overwhelming experience that causes significant disruption in the months and sometimes years following the experience. Sometimes, it can take months or years for the trauma response to begin. When we are overwhelmed by fear or horror, our brains can process things very differently to the way they normally would, and we are not able to put the experience in its appropriate place in the past. The memory of the event -or a part of the memory- can be stored as though it is happening in the present time. This can be very de-stabilising for a person suffering from trauma, because it is easy to trigger and re-activate that overwhelming sense of fear and horror, which is experienced as a current threat even though the traumatic event may be long past.

How Trauma Causes Instability in the Present

This model of how our memories store events may help you to picture how trauma causes difficulties in the present. Events are stored in the brain in networks of associations according to different aspects of the event, for instance, there may be brain networks linking all the memories involving the people from the event, specific situations, specific emotions or beliefs to the traumatic event.

target event

A person who experienced a trauma may be vulnerable to re-experiencing the fear, terror and pain of the original event on the anniversary of the event, when they meet friends who were present during the event, or when they feel stress or anxiety, because the date, people and physical sensations are associated with the trauma in their brains. For trauma survivors, current life problems often take on the magnitude of the traumatic event because the trauma gets triggered by associations the brain has made.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Anyone, no matter how strong they are psychologically or physically, can develop post traumatic stress disorder if they are exposed to enough hardship and helplessness in the face of that hardship. Post traumatic stress disorder is characterised by:

  • intrusive recollections of the event
  • recurrent nightmares of the trauma or related themes
  • intense anxiety
  • avoidance of internal and external reminders of the event
  • difficulties recalling or speaking about the event
  • persistent negative beliefs about oneself, others and the world
  • self blame
  • emotional detachment and difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • high levels of physiological arousal (irritability, self-destructive behaviour, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle responses, problems concentrating and sleep disturbance)

People who have experienced early life trauma, including emotional deprivation, intense fear and helplessness are more likely to develop post traumatic stress disorder.

Treatment

Through therapy, a person can learn skills to manage intrusive memories and intense anxiety and learn to be more alert and feel safer in the present. Trauma survivors may need to learn alternatives to self destructive coping strategies to deal with the overwhelming feelings they experience. Once a person has developed these skills and is able to maintain some stability, they can begin to reprocess the traumas with the guidance of a skilled therapist.

How to Help

Trauma focussed therapy is difficult, and takes a lot of courage, energy and dedication. You can help your loved one to cope with this intense process in the following ways:

  • understanding that they will require extra support during this time, and may be less able to deal with stress
  • knowing that they may be exhausted, irritable or highly anxious
  • trying to lower their stress levels during the therapy
  • giving them some space to be tired and emotional
  • learning about what triggers their trauma, and being sensitive to situations that are highly triggering for them
  • learning about the strategies they are developing in the therapy, and helping them to use them when they may be too distressed to remember
  • being as supportive and understanding as possible while they go through this challenging process
Academic References

Herman, Judith Lewis (2002) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Rothschild, Babette (2001) The Body Remembers. London: WW Norton and Co.

Shapiro, F (2001) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Second Edition. UK: Guildford Press.

Zayfert, C and Becker, CB (2007) Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for PTSD: A Case Formulation Approach. London: Guildford Press.