Trauma is a psychological wound that results from an emotionally-demanding circumstance or incident. Trauma results from the inability of the person to cope adequately with what they have experienced and/or witnessed. Therefore, a circumstance experienced as traumatic for one person may not be experienced as traumatic by another. For example, a student witnessing the death of a cyclist might be traumatised by what she saw, whereas a paramedic, on the scene at several deaths each week, may not be traumatised by witnessing a similar event. A racing driver might be used to experiencing quite violent car crashes, whereas a social worker might be traumatised by the experience of an urban road traffic accident. A key feature of whether an event or circumstance is likely to be experienced as traumatic is whether it is perceived by the person as a threat to their physical or psychological integrity.
People involved in overwhelming disasters and incidents often report typical reactions. Knowing about these reactions can be useful, because it can help us see that we aren't going crazy or that we aren't weak and inadequate. Such experience is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Also, it's important to realise that each person deals with trauma in a slightly different way, because each situation is unique.
It is important to realise that all of the above and perhaps other reactions as well, are understandable and normal responses to an abnormal and overwhelming event.
Recovery takes time. A psychological wound cannot be forced to heal quickly. It is no different from a physical wound. Flowing with the healing process is better than fighting it. This process can be described as moving from victim to survivor. There are some common elements in this period of healing:
You may want to be supportive to a friend who has suffered a traumatic incident but be unsure about how to go about it. The most important thing you can do is offer to 'be' there with them. Immediately after a trauma, people are likely to be in shock and may not be able to talk about the incident or their feelings. Be gentle. Comfort them in non-verbal ways - warm sweet drinks are good, holding hands or touch if appropriate - letting them know its OK to cry or rage or be silent if they need to. You don't have to 'do' anything other than be present or to listen if they want to talk. Do not attempt to 'debrief' them with endless questions, as there is some evidence that this can reinforce the trauma and make it harder to deal with later.
Be specific about the amount of time you have (e.g. I want to spend the next hour with you, but then I need to go and write an essay/go to the Library/phone my parents, etc.). This allows your friend to relax, knowing its OK to share for that hour and that they are not 'burdening' you (an understandable worry between friends). Sometimes, it may be quite harrowing to hear what they have to say. If so, it might be helpful for your friend to see a counsellor, GP or chaplain. You can still continue to show support in other ways: e.g. going along with them to make an appointment, meeting them for coffee, cooking their supper, continuing to socialise, etc.
What is likely to help:
What is likely to hinder:
If you are worried that your friend needs help from someone else but they are reluctant to go along with this idea, you can contact University's Counselling for advice. We will do our best to support you.
This is based on two leaflets entitled Trauma by Zinaida Lewczuk
and After a Crisis by Jenny Bell, Loughborough University
© 2005, The Counselling Service, University of Dundee