If you have actually listened to the pre-flight safety instructions on an airline, you know this: in case of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first before helping someone else. This is critical because you can’t help someone else without first ensuring your own safety.
The same is true when helping another heal from trauma,
you have to protect your own emotional health.
When Helping Others, Breathe First
Whether you are a friend, spouse, or family member of someone who is healing from trauma, you are at risk of experiencing “vicarious trauma”. Like emotional sponges, we can soak up the pain, anger, depression, helplessness, and victimization of the person we are helping.
This happens to mental health practitioners and physicians, who must learn to maintain at least a certain level of detachment (breathe first) in order to keep helping. To do this, you can meditate, pray for emotional protection, envision yourself as wearing armor… whatever is comfortable for you! Just be sure to make a conscious effort.
Supporting a Survivor of Trauma
First and foremost, relieve yourself of the idea that you can fix it.
What you can do is helping another heal by being a safe and supportive listener, while also asking questions to help the person you care about find their own answers.
When the survivor says, “What do you think I should do?” you can respond by asking, “What would you tell me if the roles were reversed?” Sometimes the best support is just sitting there quietly holding the tissue box while they cry, or doing a load of laundry so it’s one less burden.
Knowing the Way Out is Sometimes Tough
Survivors of trauma can occasionally become a danger to their own healing by trying to speed the healing of others. It’s natural, really, to want to share the secret when you finally get it! The important thing is that everyone has to take their own journey in order for it to heal them.
Your task as a survivor (or support person) is not to internalize the other person’s pain, but to support its expression. The simple act of being comfortable with someone else’s expression of emotion is spectacular validation.
Remember that being an understanding and gentle ear is frequently all a survivor of trauma needs. You don’t have to be an expert to know that the simple act of listening these days is an incredible gift.