Supporting Survivors in Your Life: Why Trauma-Informed Care is CriticalWritten by Kristin Keller, RN, BSN
Trigger warning: This post talks about people who have survived a trauma such as sexual assault or interpersonal violence.
If you’re a friend, family member, or partner of someone who has survived sexual assualt, interpersonal violence, or any traumatic event, it can be challenging to know how to interact with them afterward. How can we best offer our support in these situations while avoiding retraumatization?
“Retraumatization is any situation or environment that resembles an individual’s trauma literally or symbolically, which then triggers difficult feelings and reactions associated with the original trauma.” – Institute for Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care, 2015. In other words, retraumatization is like reliving a traumatic event all over again.
What’s Trauma-Informed Care?
Trauma-informed care is a way of providing treatment and services tailored to the survivor’s needs. The goal is to ensure resources are accessible while reducing the potential for re-traumatization. Recognizing how trauma can profoundly affect a person’s life, often changing their beliefs about themselves and those around them, is central to being Trauma-Informed.
There are five guiding principles of Trauma-Informed Care:
Although healthcare providers originally wrote these standards, they can also help you navigate your personal relationship with a person who has survived trauma. If you want to maximize your ability to support a friend, family member, or partner, below are some helpful ways to implement these principles on a smaller scale.
1) Physical and emotional safety
After experiencing trauma, it’s important to provide a survivor with a safe environment where they will feel welcomed and respected.
● Active listening: If your friend or loved one wants to open up about a sensitive topic, try not to change the subject out of your own discomfort. Listen, in a nonjudgmental manner, and give them time to share.
● Mutual vulnerability: One of the easiest ways to create a safe space for someone else is by sharing your own emotions. Normalizing vulnerability shows that it is a safe space for feelings to be shared.
● Know their triggers: If a survivor struggles with specific triggers, it can be helpful to know what those are so that you can avoid them and increase their feelings of safety. For example, if someone was assaulted in a cafe, the smell of coffee brewing may elicit feelings of trauma.
2) Choice and control
Often, survivors of trauma feel as though they had control and their sense of choice taken away from them.
● Just be there: You don’t necessarily have to be “doing something” in order to be supportive. Providing company without the pressure to make conversation or discuss emotions allows the survivor to regain control.
● Try not to offer unsolicited advice: Only give advice if asked. Survivors may not appreciate an opinion or directive being forced upon them.
● Avoid asking “Why?” questions: It’s normal to feel curious about what has happened to someone, however, allowing a survivor to tell their story at their own pace and in as much detail as they feel comfortable sharing can restore their sense of choice.
Sharing power and helping them make decisions.
● Help them find support: If they ask you to, help them find information about options available to them. Try not to push them to one side or another and reassure them that you will support their decision no matter what.
● Maintain your own mental health: It can take a lot of energy to support a friend or loved one in need. Be mindful of your own mental health so that you do not burn yourself out.
Survivors of trauma can feel like they don’t know who they can trust anymore or who is a “safe person”.
● Consistency: Continue to show up and check in on your friend or loved one. The process of recovery and healing looks different for everyone. They may feel pressure to “get over it”. Allow them time and space and remind them they are not alone and that you will continue to be there for them.
● Communicate and respect boundaries: Clearly express your own boundaries and expectations while respecting the boundaries of the survivor. This helps them again understand that you are a safe person.
Recognizing a person’s strengths and building upon skills for recovery.
● Validate and affirm: Believe their story. Reassure the survivor that the trauma was not their fault and that you do not judge them for anything that happened.
● Ask if they would like your help: The survivor may want you to be very involved or not at all, allow them to make that call.
● Support their decisions: Allow them to feel a sense of power and control in their life again by respecting their decisions, even if you may not agree with them.
By understanding the concepts of safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment, you can enhance your ability to be as supportive as possible. This approach will also help in decreasing the likelihood of retraumatizing a friend, family member, or partner who has experienced trauma.