Assisting someone experiencing trauma

There are various ways in which you can be helpful. These include:

 Trauma brings distress. How would you normally help someone who is distressed? This is a good starting point for you in considering how to be helpful.

Trauma brings disorientation. This often means that the person concerned may struggle with some practical tasks and may therefore need help at a very down-to-earth level. Things they can normally do for themselves without the slightest difficulty may become major obstacles when traumatised.

• Trauma can bring feelings of isolation. Just ‘being there’ for someone can often be helpful, even if there is nothing you can say or do at the time. When someone is traumatised, they may want to talk about their experience. Being able to listen without making judgements or trying to take over the situation can be very helpful in such circumstances.

• Not all traumatised people will want to talk – some will prefer to remain silent (at certain times at least). It is therefore important to give them the opportunity to talk (and be listened to) but without putting them under pressure to do so.

A reaction to a trauma can be short lived – that is, the problems start to recede after a while, and the individual concerned may quickly be on the road to recovery. However, some people take a great deal longer to re-establish a balance to their life (or ‘homeostasis’ to use the technical term), and may need professional help to get their life back under control. There are various forms such help can take, but two very common ones are:

• Cognitive behavioural therapy: This is based on the idea that a person’s behaviour is based on their beliefs or understandings (cognitions). In order to change a behaviour (for example, if someone is tending to panic as a result of a trauma), it is necessary to change the cognition. This is generally achieved through a process of identifying the ‘core beliefs’ that are at the root of the problem and seeing what can be done to abandon or modify those beliefs.

• Narrative therapy: This involves looking at the ‘story’ (or ‘narrative’) of their life that the individual has developed over time and considering how the trauma has affected this. The therapist will help the individual concerned to ‘re-author’ their narrative in ways that are more positive and empowering – that is, to revisit how they perceive their life and how that perception may need to change. Narrative therapy has some things in common with cognitive behavioural therapy, although its approach is generally broader.

In some situations it may be a whole family that has been traumatised (or the effects of the trauma on an individual may have significant consequences for their family). Where this is the case, family therapy may be an appropriate way forward. This involves bringing the whole family together under the guidance of a trained therapist (or two) to explore how the family dynamics have been affected by the trauma and how the situation can be improved. If you feel an individual could benefit from professional help, make sure that you discuss this with them. Making a referral without their knowledge or permission could cause a great deal of resentment and thus make the situation a lot worse.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at

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