It can be difficult for someone to pinpoint that the overwhelming feelings they’re experiencing are, indeed, the result of trauma. Because of this, someone standing on the outside, no matter how close a friend or family member, may be unaware of the survivor’s state of mind. However, one thing is certain: recognizing trauma symptoms in others is possible if you’re looking.
TRAUMA SYMPTOMS CAN BE RELIEVED WITH SUPPORT
It’s normal for anyone who’s experienced a trauma to have intense feelings in the days and weeks, even months, after the event. Anxiety, sadness, fear, trouble concentrating, trouble sleeping, grief, guilt. These may disrupt normal functioning, and for most people they slowly diminish over time. Support from loved ones is important – social support has been proven to help people heal and return to their normal lives.
For some survivors these types of symptoms may settle in and cause longer term issues like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, acute anxiety, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, or suicidal thoughts.
How can you recognize symptoms that indicate someone needs help?
There are different types of symptoms. While some of these are more internal, others are visible to outsiders.
Re-experiencing the event
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts
- Staying away from reminders of the trauma
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
- Avoiding talking about the event because it’s a reminder
Arousal and reactivity
- Easily startled
- Feeling tense or on edge
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry outbursts
Cognition and mood
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
To recognize some of these from the outside, listen to how the survivor is talking about the experience and their life. Are you hearing them talk about things like flashbacks, guilt, or the inability to sleep? Can you see a change in their behavior – like being tired during the day due to lack of sleep, being jumpy and nervous, no longer doing things they love to do, or isolating themselves?
There may also be visible physical symptoms, like weight gain or loss, headaches, rapid breathing, lack of interest in exercise or regular healthcare, or excessive smoking or drinking.
YOU CAN HELP
There’s no one right way to help; healing from trauma is an individual journey. How you help will be unique to the survivor and you, based on your relationship. Moreover, no matter how much you want to, remember that you can’t make the person’s pain disappear. However, you can help and make a real difference in their recovery by being there to support them.
From my perspective as a survivor there are three key ways to help.
- Validate their experience. Believe them when they talk about what happened and how it’s impacting their lives. It’s common that the media and our civic leaders don’t talk much, or at all, about the psychological impacts of trauma, especially how it affects people who were physically near or otherwise connected to a traumatic event and lucky enough to avoid physical injuries. This can leave some survivors questioning whether or not they have a right to feel the way they do – I know because that’s how I felt. That makes validation from friends and family even more important.
- Let the survivor take the lead in talking about their experience or feelings. They may want privacy and not want to share anything about the event. If they do want to talk, be ready to listen, calmly. And, even if you’ve experienced a similar trauma, it’s best not to say things like “I know how you feel” or to talk about your own experiences or feelings unless they ask.
- Let them lead in deciding what’s best for themselves. Traumatic events take away control. In the moments someone is experiencing a trauma, like a mass shooting, natural disaster, fire, or mugging, they have no control over what’s happening to them. If you think they need it, ask if they want additional help, like reaching out to a mental health professional, a victim advocate, or accessing other resources. There may be times you need to assume some control, for safety or health reasons, if they’re talking about self-harm or harming others, for example, but it’s important not to take more control than necessary.
YOUR EFFORTS CAN MEAN A LOT
A strong support system does matter. It can be the difference between healing and having symptoms that settle in and become longer term issues. You may feel helpless at times but know that your dedication and efforts DO make a difference.
How To Help a Loved One – National Center for PTSD (helpful information for trauma survivors, even without a PTSD diagnosis)
Coping with Traumatic Events – National Institute of Mental Health
SAMSHA National Helpline – for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.