Post Trauma Support
“In this world you will have trouble.”
It’s perhaps one of Jesus’ less encouraging sayings, but also one of the most wise. The last couple of years have seen many people suffer trouble and trauma in ways they never would have thought possible. And it’s brilliant to see people pull together in those moments, eager to support and care for those traumatised.
But how do you best support someone in those circumstances - whether it is a refugee family staying with you, a friend reeling from what has just happened to them or people in your community struggling to carry on with ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.
Here are three essential S's to remember - and that you can provide - if you are supporting someone struggling to recover from trauma:
When the human mind has experienced a trauma, it immediately goes into a shocked, emergency mode. It’s all about essentials, gathering those you love close to you, making sure everyone is safe, withdrawing and hunkering down and trying to make sure nothing else bad can happen.
In this mode, overwhelmed and bewildered by everything that has happened, your mind shuts down the ability to think in complex, detailed analytical ways. It starts to see the world in much more binary terms: good or bad, safe or unsafe, for you or against you. It’s all about simplifying decisions so you can do what you need to do to stay safe. Emotions may be suppressed, so you feel numb or frozen, except for moments when you feel under pressure or that something might be a new risk - when anxiety and panic can flare up powerfully with that base instinct to keep everyone safe. And the instinct to hide, to stay in, to avoid people, noise and busyness is often overpowering.
If you are supporting someone in this phase recognise that it is a healthy, necessary and important part of reacting to what has happened to them. Support their need to retreat and help them find safe space. Offer practical support, but be gentle and empathetic, and don’t assume they want you to take things off them - feeling in control is essential for them. Do what you can to enable them to find somewhere that feels safe and secure. Recognise that any kind of stimulation can trigger that emergency panic reaction in the early stages of settling from shock - so try to keep things quiet, calm and as stress-free as possible. Managing the well-meaning and concerned friends who want to visit may be an important part of this - it's more than ok to need some time and space at first before seeing people. There may well be physical needs that must be recognised - for rest, physical recovery from injury or illness, good food and nutrition to build up strength. Do not press them to talk or share if they do not feel able to - it is a protective part of how their mind is managing what they have been through that they may not be ready to talk about. Reassure them that this phase will pass, but it may take time.
As the initial shock begins to fade, the challenge becomes one of trying to start to understand and process what has happened. As that ability to think and analyse returns, this can feel like an overwhelming, impossible task. And in order to keep the focus on what has happened, a bit like a stew marinating, the brain uses emotions to draw attention back to those things, keeping them at the front of the mind.
This can be an uncomfortable phase, with emotions bubbling up unexpectedly or feeling overwhelming. Some may be expected - grief or sadness for example. But others are common and normal - frustration or anger at what has happened, what has been lost, or even at other people who were involved. Anxiety can flare up, but also smoulder in the background as the world now feels like an uncertain, risky place. And if the things your mind wants to think about are very painful or difficult, you may fight that instinct to keep them at the front of your mind, or struggle with feeling like they are always going round and round in your head. They may feel like they pop up out of your control as flashbacks or intrusive thoughts or memories. Some degree of this is a normal part of reacting to and working through trauma. But you may find these moments, coming out of the blue in ordinary moments, push you back into shock until things settle again.
When caring for someone who is starting to process what has happened, remember this isn’t clear cut - you don’t move from shock to processing once and never go back. Think of it more like a tentative moving in and out of that safe secure harbour, sometimes feeling strong enough to explore what has happened but sometimes needing to return and rest some more. Take your lead from the person you are supporting. Don’t press them to talk or share beyond what they want to. Encourage them to take it slowly and gently. Support good rest and care and reassure them - this can be an exhausting and sometimes anxious stage. Recognise that processing isn’t all about intense in-depth discussions - the casual, light hearted every day chat is also hugely important as their mind learns to relax again. Your role may be less about helping them work through the trauma and more about teaching their mind that there are still safe places and good people in the world that they can trust. Focus on creating safe spaces for chat, relaxed times to rediscover who they are and be with those they love. Recognise the moments they need to withdraw again. And of course on the other side - remember everyone is different! Some people may recover much faster or really WANT to talk and share. Every experience is different - so don't assume, and don't forget to ask what you can do to help.
Sometimes all people need to recover from trauma is time and trusted people, who can create the safe, loving spaces they need to gently and gradually work through what has happened, put life back together and slowly become ready to move on.
But sometimes the pain of what has happened, the emotions it triggers, or the deeper questions it raises about life, our own identity and the world we live in mean that we need more expert help. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when someone is struggling to process and manage what has happened to them, and emotions, memories or flashbacks start to have an impact on their ability to function well or live healthily and enjoy life. But many people find that in the earlier phases of working through something really tough they actually need some professional guidance to help. Remember that powerful emotions, difficult memories and reactions that make you feel like you are not yourself any more are normal in the weeks and months following trauma. But they can be very difficult - and that's why a very boundaried space where you go specifically and intentionally to spend some time processing them can be so important.
That doesn’t mean the people you love are not enough, and it isn’t any kind of reflection on those relationships. Sometimes we need a separate space to deal with emotions that are very powerful, or we may struggle to share with people we love because that instinct to protect them from what we are dealing with is so strong. Trauma therapists are trained and skilled, often using specific approaches or methods to help you process effectively and safely, without becoming overwhelmed by what you have been through. And they don’t have any overlap with your normal life and loved ones, so it’s a space where you don’t have to manage parallel worries about the effect your emotions are having on the person you are talking to. They are skilled and experienced at helping people find a way through the emotional mist of trauma.
If you or someone you love or care for needs this kind of expert help, you can search for local therapists on the British Psychological Society website, or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. The Association of Christian Counsellors also has a database of Christian Counsellors. If they are registered with a GP, they will also be able to help and provide all-important medical support and monitoring, so do encourage them to make and attend an appointment - this can feel overwhelming too, so practical help with this may well be hugely appreciated.
What about church?
Of course, Jesus didn't just glibly warn us we'd hit trouble and leave us with nothing. He carried on, in John 16:33, to encourage us to 'take heart' - because He had overcome the world. Literally what Jesus said was that we can find confidence again when the world has thrown us - because God is something stronger, safer and more reliable. But that doesn't mean the tough stuff doesn't throw us, affect us, leave us reeling. The word Jesus used refers to a kind of gradual growing confidence, that gradually spreads - like a warming up of your body on a really cold day. When the stuff of life hits hard, we can find out strength again in God, with God's help. But it takes time, and that is ok.
Of course, helping someone reconnect with God is a really important part of recovery, and many people find it really helpful. But it's important to recognise that it isn't easy and particularly at first it may feel impossible. The emotional freeze of shock can leave people feeling unable to experience or sense God - which can add to feelings of shock and terror in difficult circumstances. As their mind begins to process, they may feel anger or even fury at God for not stopping things from happening, or find themselves hitting huge questions of faith or about God. Doubt is a very common part of processing trauma for people with faith as their mind struggles to work out what all of this means about their faith. And very often the 'usual' ways people have of connecting with God - church, louder praise or prayer, focused study - all these can be very difficult or impossible when your mind is overwhelmed with what has happened.
Once again, take your lead from the person you are supporting and help them explore quiet, gentle, low demand ways to connect with God. If there is a season that anything feels impossible, be their link to God for them - pray for them, reassure them and remind them this will pass. Remember stories like that of Elijah who was furious with God, and needed physical rest and time to process and journey before he was ready to meet with God. Do not push them to attend church until or unless they are ready, and work with them if they do, to gradually step back into spaces that may be busy, noisy and overwhelming. And remember - through you, they can experience the love and compassion, empathy and reassurance they need to gradually, slowly and safely become ready to reconnect with God.