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Stop Asking Trauma Victims to Play Nice

There are ways to help people recover from trauma, but understanding is key.

Key points

  • Trauma fundamentally alters its victims, and they have to establish new ways of existing and interacting with the world.
  • Expecting trauma victims to quickly go back to normal is unrealistic and harmful to recovery.
  • Loved ones can give trauma survivors more respect by acknowledging and making space for their feelings of fear, disconnection, and anger.
Source: Pixabay

Trauma victims don’t need pity — and they can’t be ignored. If you don’t understand why trauma takes so long to overcome and conquer, consider yourself lucky: Over 200 million people in the United States alone have experienced some type of trauma in their lives. Despite being a hot topic for many years, trauma continues to be misunderstood, and its victims continue to silently multiply. Trauma is insidious, cunning, and destructive. Stop asking its victims to play nice.

Most people think of trauma as abuse — but typically the overt forms of abuse (sexual, physical) as opposed to equally harmful but less observable types, including psychological and emotional abuse. Yes, trauma is all of those, but also more. Trauma conveys a loss of power, in any form, that leaves behind a casualty of war. In its path lies intense pain, paranoia, mistrust, and above all a loss of innocence.

Trauma robs people of their comfortable assumption of safety and deposits profound fears of future danger. Traumatic experiences always center around feeling helpless in the face of deeply distressing events, and many times the aftereffects are postponed until the victim is “safely” out of survival mode.

Once heart rates and breathing have returned to normal, and shock has worn off, many people start to undergo the reverberations of trauma — an incredibly long, tortuous journey where “normal” becomes relative and every thought, feeling, and interaction must be re-examined through a new lens of mistrust and hurt.

To complicate matters, those who experience chronic, or ongoing, trauma find themselves constantly warring with “what was” versus “what may be.” Stuck in a sort of limbo, with constant attempts to find safe footing, these individuals are forced to discover the real “new normal.” Unfortunately, this journey is not easily ended and is a marathon, not a sprint.

Because trauma robs its victims of their innocence and trust in the goodness of life and others, recovery must involve a reappraisal of what life may look like on the other side. This revision of what to expect is uncomfortable at best; in its worst form, it is debilitating, crushing, and life-altering. Trauma, in some ways, is the gift that keeps on giving — years after it occurs, it continues to peck away and change worldviews.

To understand what is required in healing from trauma, more people need to first recognize the bloody footprint it leaves on their lives. Pretending nothing happened may work in the moment to reduce agitation and intense anxiety, but in the long run, it’s a slow-burning catastrophe that will erupt at exactly the wrong moment, seemingly in response to nothing. Trauma’s power lies in its slow-release mechanism, measuring out pain and heartache in small doses over long periods of time. While the acute memory may fade, the feelings and visceral reactions will always remain. Some people may just be better at burying it deeper than others.

Trauma is not a death sentence, but it does fundamentally change people. Stop expecting them to “go back to normal” because that normal no longer exists and is now inaccessible, no matter how much they wish to return as well. That Shangri-La becomes unreachable — a golden memory.

How to help a loved one who is a trauma survivor

Trauma victims don’t need to be treated with kid gloves — they have handled more in a short span than many people will in a lifetime — but there are some basic respects that should be paid to them:

Source: Pixabay
  • When you notice those trauma victims who don’t seem to be able to handle the slightest upset, take a step back and allow them some wiggle room — chances are fairly high they can’t see what is in front of them because of the black cloud hanging over them. Many will be unaware of the present stimuli because the past is knocking too loudly, so overreacting in the moment is not what it seems.
  • When trauma victims seem disconnected and out of touch, they are. Those vacant stares into the distance, the one-word answers to others’ inquiries, and the cold responses to everyday emotions can all be side effects of dealing with flashbacks and triggers. When there is a grenade detonating inside your head and no one, including yourself, can put out the fire and stop the noise, it becomes nearly impossible to respond effectively to the immediate environment. Don’t take the lack of connection personally and try to see past the surface.
  • When fear visits trauma victims, it does not resemble the monster-under-the-bed type. This fear is all grown up now, and it burrows deep inside its host and consumes all in its path. Fear of what will happen, fear of the past repeating itself, fear of losing control — all wrapped into one package that arrives at the doorstep without warning. Picture almost dropping something valuable into a river or narrowly missing a vehicle accident and the adrenaline rush that follows; for trauma victims, this fear is exponentially multiplied and takes up residence in every part of their lives. They often live in a constant state of adrenaline and feel most familiar with survival mode. Help them experience grounding, refocus on what is still safe, and hang on for the ride until you get there.
  • When trauma victims get angry at what has happened to them, let them. Stuffed anger becomes misplaced anger and destroys relationships. Don’t expect them to empathize immediately with their tormentors, and don’t insist on forgiveness until it’s granted. Many trauma victims do not recognize the depth of their own pain and hurt until they have been dealing with it for years, and their anger at what caused it can stay hidden for a very long time. Often, there is a fear behind expressing anger — because anger likely contributed to what hurt them in the first place. This can make trauma victims overly pliant and eager to please, equally deadly sins to recovery.

Healing and recovery from trauma is in everyone’s best interests — its victims and their significant others. To blithely believe in a return to normal is short-sighted and naïve however, and it can actually re-traumatize individuals who are already suffering. The immense guilt that accompanies trauma recovery plays an important role — guilt at being traumatized, to begin with, guilt that it has changed your life and the lives of those important to you, and guilt that you are not able to feel and react in the same ways as before. Giving permission for the future to look different is a breath of fresh air in this battle.

Stop expecting trauma victims to play nice. Don’t insist they sit down and share their story with whoever wants to hear the gory details, and refuse to dictate the verbiage they use to share that story when they are finally ready. Brace yourself for vicarious distress and to hear things that will make you feel incredibly uncomfortable and question your basic beliefs about the world. Trauma victims have been plucked out of their “normal” lives and altered in visible and invisible ways. Most of them are being eaten alive by the aftereffects, and they could use a little intuition and reprieve.


The National Council for Behavioral Health

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