It’s said that time heals all wounds. But if you love someone who has experienced trauma, you know that time, by itself, doesn’t necessarily cure everything. Psychological wounds that were inflicted decades ago can cause just as much pain as if they occurred yesterday.
However, a traumatic background doesn’t doom your loved one to a lifetime of unhappiness. It also doesn’t mean you are powerless in their healing process. There are many things that you can do to help them cope with their traumatic path and move forward into the peaceful life they deserve.
One of the most challenging aspects of supporting a loved one through their trauma recovery is simply understanding the condition itself. Trauma is notoriously difficult to define because it takes so many different forms.
Trauma can arise from a single life-altering event, such as the unexpected death of someone they care about, a serious accident or injury, the experience of a natural disaster, or some form of assault. Even prolonged stress can be traumatizing. If your loved one has experienced chronic illness, significant financial stress, or community-based violence, they’re likely experiencing trauma.
A person can only be strong for so long. The mind and body can only endure the fight or flight response that accompanies stress for a finite amount of time before unhealthy coping responses begin to emerge.
For example, people who have experienced ongoing domestic violence may develop what psychologists have identified as Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS). BWS is characterized by a feeling of “learned helplessness” in the victim, who may develop a coping strategy of passivity simply because they feel they have no other choice but to submit and hope the abuse will end.
If you love someone who is a victim of abuse, it’s important to understand that although this may look like an infuriating acceptance of violence to you, it is actually a trauma response. Remember that you cannot force them to seek help or escape their situation unless they are ready.
Until that time, all you can do is be there. Love them. Let them know there is a way out, and make sure they have the means to reach out to the authorities if there is an emergency, such as a secret cell phone programmed to call 911.
Safety should be your number one priority if your loved one is experiencing abuse. Encourage, educate, and equip them with the tools for a safe departure from a traumatizing situation.
Once they’re safe from a traumatizing or potentially abusive situation, the waters ahead may seem smooth. However, there may be more storms for them to bear. Healing from past traumas has its own set of challenges. One challenge is that they may not even realize how their past experiences are affecting them, and are unable to articulate these effects to you.
It’s important to encourage your loved one to resist the urge to hide from or deny their past. Addressing their trauma can help them learn to understand it and, above all, to take control over it. Through that process, they’re going to begin recognizing traumatic events and acknowledging the pain, grief, and anger those events caused them. They will be better able to recognize the emotional, physical, and psychological triggers that call those traumas to life.
However, it isn’t enough for them to just be able to identify their triggers. It’s also important that they recognize their responses to triggers and replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones. This is where you come in: when you recognize that your loved one is being triggered, you can encourage them to choose self-healing responses. This could be anything from offering to listen when they need to talk to pampering them with a warm bubble bath.
Another important strategy for helping them cope with trauma is to create an environment that supports their sense of peace and calm. A cluttered space, for instance, is extremely stressful. Clutter also increases the likelihood of running into potentially triggering objects. Helping them declutter those items that don’t contribute to their peace and happiness is the perfect way to support them in moving on to a healthy and hopeful future, free of their trauma.
When you love someone, you want nothing more than for them to be happy, to protect them from pain. When your loved one has experienced trauma though, it takes work to reach the happy future you both deserve. With love, patience, and understanding, however, it can happen — one day at a time.