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5 Reasons Why It May Be Hard to Seek Support After Trauma

Isolation is one of the hallmarks of the trauma response.

Key points

  • Society still equates trauma responses with weakness.
  • Survivors often do not want to burden others.
  • Worry about losing emotional control is prevalent.
  • Many survivors may experience prolonged freeze reactions.

Trauma survivors can often feel disconnected from those around them, including loved ones. In fact, one of the widely acknowledged symptoms of post-traumatic stress is social detachment. The profound feelings of isolation that often follow experiencing a traumatic event may result from the nature of the trauma, its severity, chronicity, and, in cases of interpersonal trauma, the relationship to the perpetrator.

In the aftermath of adversity, survivors may need additional support from those around them, both in coping with the everyday challenges in navigating the world with a hyperactivated nervous system and in seeking professional help.

There are a number of reasons why a trauma survivor may find it difficult to seek and even accept support. While such behavior may be confusing and even frustrating to loved ones, understanding those reasons can foster reconnection.

  1. Feeling embarrassed or ashamed. Although discussion of trauma and its consequences has become prevalent in society today, many still equate trauma responses with weakness. Consequently, trauma survivors often worry that they will be seen as weak for experiencing symptoms. They may feel panic in social situations or crowds, or they may be unable to experience joy or excitement in the ways that they used to. Shame and embarrassment are often accompany trauma, whether due to victim-blaming at the societal level or internalized self-blame for inability to control emotional and physiological responses in the aftermath of the trauma.
  2. Fearing others will judge or not understand. Many trauma survivors are reluctant to seek help for fear that others will not “get them.” Worse, they may have already sought support and been met with judgment or dismissal. Unsupportive statements can range in nuance and intensity, from “It could be worse” to “If you had not done X, this would not have happened.” Victims of childhood trauma who were not validated at the time, who were blamed for what happened, or who were dismissed as untruthful especially fear asking for help in adulthood.
  3. Worrying they may lose control. Many trauma survivors avoid any thoughts and feelings related to their experience out of worry that reminders of or conversations about what happened may unleash emotional responses beyond their ability to control. As a result, they may shy away from seeking help and try to maintain a semblance of stability through avoidance, in service of not becoming dysregulated.
  4. Not wanting to burden others. I have heard trauma survivors say, “I don’t want them to know what I have gone through.” They may avoid talking about their experiences out of fear that they will traumatize those around them as well. This is especially the case with those who have experienced unhelpful caregivers in childhood. A parent who shows that they are unable to contain a child's upset emotions may inadvertently teach the child that even those entrusted with their care are incapable of helping at times of need.
  5. Freeze response. The freeze response is a reaction orchestrated by the autonomic nervous system in the moment of trauma, but a more prolonged version can occur, too. In adulthood, it may show up as lack of motivation, indecisiveness, “laziness,” or feeling stuck in life. Individuals who are experiencing a prolonged freeze response may not only shy away from seeking help but have trouble identifying what they need in the first place.

The support and acceptance of loved ones play a paramount role in the process of trauma recovery. However, trauma by its nature may force survivors into isolation and emotional detachment.

It is important not just to recognize why it can be challenging for survivors to seek help but to validate the feelings of vulnerability that prevent them from being open about their struggles. Keep in mind that while a survivor may not be actively articulating a need for help, such a need may indeed exist and the emotional withdrawal is the very signal of it.

More from Valentina Stoycheva Ph.D.
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