Traumatic events happen every day. These events can include family violence and abuse, sexual or physical assault, emotional abuse, experiences of bias, discrimination, harassment, natural disasters, serious accidents and injuries.
As Buffs, it’s important that we know how to offer support to someone who has been through a traumatic experience. When upsetting things happen and people need someone to talk to, they usually turn to a friend, roommate or someone they trust.
Here are some ways you can support a friend after a traumatic experience.
Make sure they’re safe
If someone tells you about a traumatic, distressing or disturbing experience, it’s important to check on their physical and mental safety.
You can help them address immediate safety concerns by asking if they:
After a traumatic experience it is important to give the impacted person control of what happens next, who is told and what they can do. An exception to this is if the person is not able to keep themself safe, or if there is concern they may harm or kill themself.
If this is the case, you want to get the help of a professional. Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) provides 24/7 crisis support at 303-492-2277.
Listen to them
Ask open ended questions to gain a better understanding of their feelings and needs. Even if you have had a similar experience, avoid the temptation to say you know how they feel. Instead, practice active listening, validate the feelings the person is sharing, and avoid sharing advice or judgment.
When possible, reflect back what you hear. This can help clarify that you understand what they’re saying and shows that you are truly listening. For instance, if a friend tells you about an experience that made them fearful, you can reflect back by saying, “That sounds like a scary experience, and it makes you feel anxious.”
It can also be helpful to remember to use TALK:
If you’re not sure how to start the conversation or feel nervous about having a conversation, check out Kognito. Kognito is an online tool that can help you practice having challenging conversations with someone in distress. It will help you learn how to identify the warning signs of psychological distress and how to talk with a friend or peer about their experience in a healthy way. It also provides resources to help you build connections and assist someone in seeking help.
Normalize their feelings
Normalize and validate their feelings. This doesn’t mean that you’re normalizing the bad thing that happened, but instead you’re affirming that their response to it is understandable. People respond to traumatic events differently. However someone is feeling or acting is normal. This may include laughing, crying, anger, numbness or other responses.
Stay calm and avoid judgment
Remain calm during the conversation and avoid letting your own emotional response interfere. Remember that you can’t “fix” the situation, make the person feel better or take their pain away. Sometimes it’s most effective to sit with them and listen.
It can also be helpful to understand and recognize your own internal judgments and how they may affect your response in this situation. Having judgment about what someone could have done differently is normal, but it’s important not to verbalize that judgment, as it can cause shame and self-blame for the person. Feeling judged won’t change what happened, and it may keep someone from seeking additional support.
In addition to withholding judgment, it’s important to monitor your tone of voice. Sometimes our tones or actions can add to the intensity of what the other person is feeling. This can happen when we get upset, tell them what they should do or demand more information.
Follow their lead
When someone has experienced a traumatic event, it’s important to let them take the lead and decide what they want to do. Avoid telling them what to do or how to feel about their situation. Instead, help them explore options for additional support or next steps, but don’t pressure them to take action. If your friend makes a decision about how to move forward that you don’t agree with, avoid sharing your disapproval. Instead, let them know that you support them and are there for them.
Sometimes we need someone to simply be there… Not to fix anything or do anything in particular, but just to let us feel we are supported and cared about.