More than half of Americans will go through a traumatic event at least once in their lives. 

“Trauma is extremely common,” says Kristen R. Choi, PhD, a registered nurse and researcher at UCLA who studies trauma.

It can be challenging to know how to help someone you love and care for when they have gone through a crisis or emotional trauma. Starting the conversation and supporting them through their recovery is a great way to care for them. 

Don’t ever underestimate the power of person-to-person contact. Coping with trauma and crisis can be overwhelming, and your support may make a vital difference in the recovery process.

 

How Do You Start a Conversation About Trauma?

help with holiday stress

It’s natural to want to help someone you love to feel better again, but it’s essential to accept the trauma that has happened. Offering support to a loved one who is suffering can begin with a simple statement or open-ended question. 

  • “I’m so sorry ______ happened.”
  • “Can you tell me what happened?”
  • “How are you holding up right now?”
  • “What are you thinking and talking about in terms of ____________?”

And if some time has passed since the initial traumatic event, you can still start conversations about the event.

  • What do you miss the most?
  • What is the hardest part for you?
  • What is the hardest time of day for you?

When you first ask, the trauma survivor might say no and not want to talk. That’s okay. Asking helps to establish that you’re willing to listen, and you are someone they can trust if and when they are ready to talk. Your support and presence means more than you think.

 

Continuing The Conversation

conversation on emotional trauma

Once you’ve started the conversation about emotional trauma, it’s important to continue it and help them talk through their feelings. You can say:

  • I can’t imagine know how you feel, I only  remember how I felt when ________________ happened. (But don’t go into details unless specifically asked.)
  • I care about you. I care about how you’re feeling. Is there anything I can do to help?
  • Is there anything in your room/home you would like to change to feel more comfortable?
  • Would you like to talk about it?
  • I’m available (be specific, time, date, place), can we get together to talk?
  • When you are ready to talk about it, I’m here for you.
  • I’m thinking about you, especially today, because I’m aware that today is ________ (anniversary of the event, your birthday, etc.). I’m here to listen if you want to talk or just spend time together .
  • When is your special event (game, recital, rehearsal, etc.)? Would it be okay if I stop by?

 

When To Pause The Conversation

While talking through emotional trauma, there may be instances where talking could do harm.

Some trauma survivors find it difficult to talk about what happened. Don’t force your loved one to open up but let them know you are there to listen if they want to talk, or available to just hang out if they don’t.

  • Try not to discuss the trauma and/or post-traumatic stress symptoms at times of high stress or tension. If possible, wait for a time when you and your loved one are calm and when there are no distractions.
  • Avoid any further discussions with your traumatized loved one if he or she reacts strongly while discussing the trauma–or if you fear that he or she will. Wait until you can solicit the help of a mental health professional to facilitate the sharing process.

 

What To Expect

talking about emotional trauma

Discussing trauma can be hard for the survivor, and it can also be hard to hear the details as a supporter. Although every trauma and conversation is different, there are some common themes on what you can expect during your conversations:

  • Prepare yourself mentally and spiritually to hear things that may be difficult to listen to. Practices such as meditation, prayer, reading an inspirational passage, or making a call to a friend or a sponsor before you talk with your loved one about the trauma may help you stay calm and at peace, despite the difficult topic.
  • Plan to take things slowly– don’t expect a loved one to pour out every detail of his or her trauma the first time that you discuss it. It may take weeks, months, or even years to fully comprehend what your loved one has experienced. Be patient enough to let your loved one share as little or as much as he or she chooses and at a comfortable pace.
  • Focus on listening, instead of asking. During your conversations, asking too many probing questions could feel threatening and very unsettling. 
  • Respect your loved one’s wishes as they relate to creating a comfortable setting. Your loved one may want you to touch him or her as the two of you talk (holding a hand or putting a hand on an arm or leg), or he or she may reject any physical contact at all. Your loved one may want to sit face-to-face or prefer not to look at you at all. “It was hard for me to accept, but Sean usually preferred to sit in a chair across the room from me or stand behind me when we discussed anything related to his trauma or his post-traumatic stress symptoms.”

 

There is Hope

hope after emotional trauma

People can recover from trauma, and having a conversation can often be the first step. “Traumatic events are things that stay with us forever,” Nelba Márquez-Greene, a professional therapist, said. “They don’t have to negatively impact us forever, but they stay with us forever.”  With assistance, the right treatment, and a solid understanding of the healing process, you can help loved ones overcome trauma.