How to Respond When Someone Tells You They’ve Experienced Trauma
In an ongoing conversation about how to support friends who are struggling with their mental health, it's important to have an honest discussion about trauma, and how it affects all of us. According to the Sidran Institute, it's estimated that around 70 percent of adults in the United States will be exposed to a traumatic event in their lifetimes, and around 20 percent of that population will go on to develop PTSD. Therefore, it's likely that you know someone who may have been affected by trauma in their lives, who may reach out to you seeking support — and, thanks to decades of stigma around mental illness that prevents us from having a dialogue around it, you may be at a loss for how to respond.
Studies have shown that disclosing trauma seems to reduce distress in people who are carrying it, and of course, we want to be there for our friends when they're having a hard time. But we can have many conflicting instincts in the moment of disclosure: to reassure the person, try to get them help, or dissociate from the experience ourselves. However, there are steps you can take in the moment of disclosure to help the person who's revealing their trauma and give them the support they need.
Learning about this person's trauma may be difficult for you because you care about them. The most valuable thing you can do, counselor Heidi McBain tells Bustle, is to show them that you're open to hearing it. "Listen to what they have to say," she says, "and show empathy and compassion toward them and what they have been through." Your immediate instincts may be to go into "help mode," but the first priority in this scenario must be to make them feel heard and accepted. Practicing empathetic listening, where you acknowledge what they're saying with your body language and encourage them to keep going, can be a helpful strategy.
2. Try To Control Your Own Reactions
"Don’t get overly emotional, even if the news is upsetting to you, as this is not helpful to your friend/family member," says McBain. In the moment of disclosure, people can be very vulnerable. They may even laugh or smile to attempt to hide their embarrassment or normalize the situation, but that doesn't mean they don't care about what happened; just the opposite. If the news makes you want to cry, or yell, or anything at all, it's important to save that reaction for a moment where it won't affect the person disclosing their trauma to you.
3. Reassure Them That You Still Feel The Same Way About Them
The number one thing that people want to know once they've trusted you with this information, McBain tells Bustle, is that "what they have told you has not changed the way you see them or how you feel about them." This can be a hard thing to feel in the moment, because trauma, even if it doesn't directly affect you, can be very challenging to process. But it can be good for them if you're able to communicate that you still love them and see them the same as you always have.
4. Thank Them For Telling You
When somebody has revealed something very challenging, it's a mark of their faith in you. So thank them for doing it. "Just make sure you’re doing it in a way that it’s still about the other person and what they have shared with you," says McBain. She recommends the following script: "Thank you for sharing this with me so I can be here to help and support you so you won’t feel so alone."
5. If They're Not In Therapy, Suggest It
While you may desperately want to solve this for them, you can't. If they're not in therapy, this is the one big thing you can do to make their life better: encourage them to seek help. "Stress the importance of therapy to them," says McBain. "They are going to need a safe place to process this trauma on a deeper level with a trained professional."
Sometimes people who've been in therapy for trauma before have had bad experiences; not all therapists or counselors are created equal, and some can end up blaming or shaming the person they're supposed to help. If your friend or family member strongly resists therapy for this reason or any other reason, McBain says, "give examples from your own life about how it was helpful to you, if possible." If you have other friends who've gone through trauma and found help — or have found it helpful yourself — this may be the time to bring that experience into the conversation.
Trauma is a complicated thing to process, and confiding about it to someone close to them can be a big risk. The best way to support your friend is by thanking them for trusting in you, and tell them that you're there for them in any way you can be.