When we think of trauma, we think of the unspeakable, we think of unbearable hurt and pain, we think of the worst of the worst; then we stop thinking, we stop feeling, we go into denial. Due to this denial, survivors of trauma work very hard to push through their experiences on their own. Why do we deny? While there is no one real answer to this, fear is a large factor; fear of pain, fear of suffering, fear of powerlessness and lack of control. If this happened to this person, it can happen to me and now I am fearful. Not a very nice feeling to have for long, so we deny the survivor’s experience; it did not happen the way they remember, they asked for it in some way, I am different, therefore it will not happen to me. Now I feel better! You’re wondering about this?
Let me tell you about the people who don’t deny and support the trauma survivor through their journey.
As a mental health therapist, I am trained to deal with my client’s trauma. I have spent considerable time working through and processing my feelings around my own experiences of trauma so that I am better equipped to help my clients work through theirs. Is this fool proof?
The answer is a definite no. As with all people, therapists are subject to life stressors, health problems, etc., so vicarious trauma is a possibility for people in the field of mental health. Vicarious trauma is something that happens over time in response to the traumatic stories of others. For friends and family that are exposed to their loved one’s trauma, secondary trauma is a possibility. Secondary trauma is more immediate and can happen when exposed to just one traumatic story. When confronted with horror, it makes sense that we would choose to deny it in some way, shape, or form.
Denial doesn’t just come from others; it can come from the survivors themselves. After a trauma, survivors are highly vulnerable and more often than not, are not supported in a positive and validating environment. Again, this is usually due to the people around them not being able to deal with the reality that their safety is at risk too. When this occurs, survivors can become entrenched in a spiral of shame and confusion. Confronted with the denial of others, survivors of trauma start to question their experiences (confusion) and worse of all start wondering how they may have caused it to happen (guilt). This brings up huge feelings of shame; I did something bad/stupid, others think I did something bad/stupid, therefore I am bad/stupid. Except it was not their fault! Someone else chose to violate them! Often survivors of trauma are unable to come to a fair assessment of their conduct (unrealistic guilt) and balance this with denial of responsibility. They did not seek it out by anything they said or did, but faced with a less than supportive environment, their own unrealistic guilt, survivors emotionally shutdown, try to tell themselves and others that the trauma really wasn’t a big deal, and become numb in order to cope.
This is what re-traumatization looks like. The first trauma, if dealt with right away in a supporting and validating environment can be healed with minimal effort; when it isn’t, the second trauma that occurs, the re-traumatization, is harder to heal as the shame the survivor feels is compounded daily by the judgement of others who are unable to deal with or accept the reality of the traumatized person. It has been reported that survivors of trauma that do not have supportive families are at increased risk for persistent post-traumatic symptoms.
Then we have the justice system. This is a system that we as a society count on to charge the perpetrator and put on trial so that the perpetrator pays for the pain and suffering they have caused to an innocent person. It’s not a terrible system unless you are a traumatized individual that has to go through the process to get the justice they seek; then it becomes a place of nightmares. We see this re-traumatization clearly as traumatized individuals move through the court process. Our justice system works on the premise that a person is innocent until proven guilty; great! But this means that it is upon the survivor and their legal team to prove that their story is true. On the other side, the perpetrator’s legal team is formulating questions that will poke holes in the victim’s story. So now the trauma survivor has to convince people that they are not liars; that their experience is valid and it is as they say. This is where re-traumatization occurs and can be even more devastating than the initial trauma; I think it is safe to say that it is more devastating.
Survivors of trauma need to understand that what they are feeling is normal. Experiencing trauma can make a person feel very isolated, powerless, that their sense of self has been shattered, that they are disconnected from others, and that they cannot trust anyone. The focus of the victim is to establish a sense of safety and to regain some sort of security. After a trauma has occurred and a sense of some safety and security has been established, it is imperative to move into rebuilding some form of trust. Reconnecting with people after a trauma is also a primary necessity as being able to trust someone helps us feel safe and protected. Studies show that survivors of trauma that have supportive people in the aftermath of trauma report shorter times of recovery! The kind of support is key to this recovery and even with supportive family and friends, it is important that you seek professional help. Therapists are trained in trauma and better equipped to help you navigate through the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. Family and friends are a great support, but the journey towards real healing takes its toll on those we love too.
Is there someone in your life that is trying to cope with a trauma and you are wondering how you can support them? First off be aware of your responses to the survivor’s story. It is very normal for family, lovers, or friends to be over protective which can impede the survivor’s ability and need to reestablish their sense of autonomy. This can take the shape of aggressive outbursts, the family insisting on deciding their own course of action, or an intimate partner attempting to seek revenge in spite of the survivor’s wishes. It is imperative that as a supportive person that you do not override the survivor’s wishes as this only compounds the trauma by further disempowering them. Giving support to someone that has been traumatized is like walking a tight rope as even positive affirmations (they are not at fault) can trigger the survivor’s shame and guilt. This is due to the survivor’s focus on fairness of moral responsibility; did I do something to make them do that to me? Am I certain that I did not create a misunderstanding? The thoughts and feelings around the trauma can be very complex for the survivor, so it is important to remain neutral in your support.
Here are a few more tips to providing someone with a safe space to share their story:
- Let them know that you are there for them and that they do not have to go through this alone.
- Actively listen. This means that you just listen and do not assign blame! When we are just able to listen, this can allow the survivor to work through the experience and hopefully can come to a realistic judgement of their conduct and a fair understanding of responsibility.
- Empathize. Do not tell them you understand! Everyone’s experiences are different. Let them know that you can imagine the pain and suffering that they are experiencing.
- Validate. Suspend what you believe or don’t believe. This is where you are letting them know that whatever they say is the gospel truth.
- Support them in actively seeking out resources, such as a therapist.
The good news is that you can come to terms with the traumatic experience and create a new and better future for yourself. If you are suffering symptoms due to a traumatic experience, know that you are not alone and you do not need to go through it alone. Seek help right away! The sooner you get the support you need, the faster you will recover. At Interactive Counselling, our Kelowna counsellors are trained professionals that can support you through your journey of healing and empowerment.