Trauma is complex, and many loved ones feel nervous or confused about how to approach the subject. Some will avoid talking about it altogether. Others react defensively or overly sympathetically, both of which can trigger more discomfort.
Sometimes, there just isn't a "perfect" thing to say or do. Being a good listener, showing up and not judging their story, and emphasizing how much you care can speak volumes. That said, there are certainly some wrong things to say. Here's what you should generally avoid telling someone who's experienced trauma.
"You Can't Change The Past"
While this statement is absolutely true, it can be one of the most invalidating things to say to someone with PTSD symptoms. Trauma survivors very much want to leave their pasts- they would give anything to forget that certain memories ever happened. They are also acutely aware that they can't change the traumatic events that happened to them.
The recovery process for trauma entails accepting that you can't change the past while also rewriting the story of what the past holds. This healing takes time, and it's often complicated and painful.
"At Least You Had ___"
If someone opens up to you about their traumatic event, be mindful of potentially minimizing their experience. For example, someone with PTSD might talk about how difficult their father's unexpected death was for them. You might respond by saying, "At least you had such a wonderful and attentive mother despite that pain."
And while both statements can be true, a more supportive response would focus on validating your loved one's emotions. This might sound like, "I can only imagine how painful that was for you and your family."
"You Are So Strong and Resilient"
People often compliment trauma survivors for their grit and perseverance. But it's important to note that many people with PTSD feel stuck in their own strength or emotional resilience. They feel ashamed of their feelings, and they struggle to open up or be vulnerable with others.
There's nothing wrong with complimenting a loved one. But sometimes it's more helpful to remind them that you love them for exactly who they are and that they don't need to be strong or have it all figured out when they're around you.
"It Could Have Been So Much Worse"
This is a kneejerk reaction that's rooted in sensitivity, but it can quickly come across as off-putting. Maybe a friend got into a car accident, and you immediately respond by saying, "Well, it could have been so much worse! You could have gotten really hurt!"
Focusing on the positives can always be helpful when someone is suffering. But when it comes to trauma, let your loved one lead with optimism. If they're comfortable sharing their pain with you, it's important to try to sit with them in that pain- rather than spin things in a positive direction.
"Try Not to Dwell On It"
Nobody wants to fixate on a traumatic experience. Unfortunately, we don't choose our emotions, and PTSD symptoms can't be wished away (no matter how much someone tries).
Trauma impacts the very core of someone's development and well-being. Sometimes recovery absolutely means paying attention to what happened in the past and rewiring old neural pathways. This takes time, even if the traumatic events happened long ago.
So, when you tell someone to stop dwelling on something, you're essentially telling them that you can't handle their unpleasant emotions and that they need to speed up their healing process. These words can be devastating for someone who's just trying to stay afloat.
"Have You Tried ___?"
Whether it's a certain medication, diet change, or mindfulness exercise, people are often full of well-intentioned advice when it comes to mental health problems.
And even though this question comes across as sincere, it can feel condescending or frustrating for the recipient. When someone opens up to you about their feelings, there's a good chance they aren't looking for you for unsolicited advice. They just want to be heard and understood.
The only time to consider asking this question is if your loved one explicitly asks you for advice. If that's the case, it may be appropriate to respond by saying, "I've heard good things about ___. What are your thoughts?
"How Long Do You Think It'll Be Until You Feel Better?"
Unlike physical injuries that tend to be treated with specific timelines, emotional and psychological injuries tend to be far more nuanced. Your loved one simply can't tell you how long they'll be feeling this way. And they may feel worse long before they feel better.
Even if they enter therapy, it's normal to still experience PTSD symptoms, and they often become heightened in the first weeks and months of treatment. Instead of asking how long recovery will take, focus on checking in with your loved one. See how they're doing. Ask for what they need. And remember that you providing love and social support is the best gift you can offer right now.
Treatment Options for PTSD and Trauma Recovery
The road to healing from PTSD symptoms isn't a straight path, and many people experience heightened anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as they work through their trauma.
We are here to support you or your loved one in your mental health recovery. At Resurface Group, we wholeheartedly believe everyone deserves a chance for a fulfilling life, regardless of what happened in their past.
Contact us today to learn more about our dynamic program.