Trauma takes many forms. It can be loud and instantaneous. It can be silent and sustained. Perhaps it’s the rumble of the catastrophic earthquake that devastates a community and is gone moments later. Perhaps it’s the individual who suffers hidden abuse at the hands of a trusted family member for years. While the manifestations of trauma are varied, there is often a singular, shared aspect in people’s response: a hesitancy to come forward and speak about their trauma due to a fear of how others may react.
This anxiety is not unfounded. There is no shortage of stories of those who have opened up about their trauma and had it go badly. Some have had to endure unhelpful clichés about silver linings or everything happening for a reason. Others have been explicitly blamed for what happened to them. Even if you aren’t a licensed mental healthcare professional, there may come a day when someone chooses to share their own traumatic experience with you. With this in mind, here are four helpful ways to respond when a person discloses something of this sensitive nature.
Thank them for trusting you. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for someone to come forward and talk to someone else about a traumatic event and the repercussions they experienced. There are often a number of questions that run through their minds. Will they be believed? What if other people think it’s their own fault? What if what they endured doesn’t seem that bad to other people? You can set an empathetic tone for the ensuing conversation by beginning it with your own gratitude for their trust in you as a safe person to confide in.
Listen. After thanking the other person for trusting you, resist the urge to take the reins of the conversation. This can be particularly tempting if there are periods of silence, but these are sometimes the result of someone who is trying to process complex thoughts and conflicting emotions or trying to find the right words to say. It can also be difficult not to jump in, immediately share a similar experience you or someone you know went through, or to try to find some perfect phrase to make everything better. However, they deserve the privilege and the power of sharing their story with you at their pace, in their words, and at their discretion, so defer to them and simply be a willing listener.
Validate their trauma and affirm them as a person. Acknowledging that what they suffered was terrible and unjustified can be cathartic to hear for those who have undergone substantial trauma. Sincere, compassionate statements like, “I am so sorry this happened to you” or “this was not your fault” can also be beneficial. If you then follow this up with recognizing and commending them for having the courage to communicate such intimate details of a painful part of their life with you, it can be hugely encouraging.
Offer support. One of the most significant things you can do in response to someone else’s trauma is to extend your own offer of support. What they went through was horrible; they deserve support. What that looks like will differ depending on what kind of relationship the two of you have and if they are speaking to you as a peer, a client, or a patient, but it is nonetheless a critical component of the conversation.
A peer may demonstrate their support through being an attentive friend, while also being acutely aware of their own limitations. They must be prepared for the possibility that there may come a time when the appropriate course of action is to gently suggest pursuing guidance from a licensed mental health professional, whereas a professional is extensively trained to offer support in a therapeutic environment and will be strongly equipped on matters of boundaries, confidentiality, and various strategies for healing.
Whatever role you play, your ability to respond thoughtfully to someone else’s trauma can have an incredible impact. You may not have all the answers, but you can help someone feel safe speaking to you about it, and hopefully find peace and restoration.
About the Guest Author: Amy Stuart is an avid writer and as someone with a desire to be a passionate advocate for those in need, particularly for those impacted by mental illness. She completed her B.S. in Justice Studies at Arizona State University and is pursuing her M.A. at Wake Forest University, where she is studying clinical mental health counseling. Currently, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, writing, working out, baking, and volunteering in her community. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.