Flight attendant with oxygen mask

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.

You can’t.


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.

we love to read your comments below

Aubrey Cole

Aubrey Cole

I survived a quarter century of psychological, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. When I got out, I vowed to help others do the same and founded the Emotional Abuse Survivors Network project in 2012. Now, I offer hope and healing to others on their journey as they rediscover themselves. My forthcoming books, Bodies in the Basement and Define Winning, chronicle my experiences, escape, and recovery. There is nothing so special about me that others can't emerge and thrive.
Aubrey Cole

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You can’t help someone else without first ensuring your own safety


  1. Profile photo of Brian Peasnall
    Brian Peasnall

    August 7, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    From my experience, this article is spot on. As a person who is living with and deeply in love with a victim of intense emotional abuse, I have learned to be strong, patient and understanding. I know that she sees that and appreciates it. In her words “I now that being with me isn’t easy, and you never complain.” I try to reassure her that its not hard for me to love her. And it’s not. Loving her, being patient and understanding is not hard. The hard part is watching her go through the cycle of pain as she deals with a 15 year past filled with emotional abuse. So I am strong. When I’m with her. But when I’m on my own I don’t always feel so strong. My question is how do you not “internalize the other person’s pain” when you love that person so deeply? I can never really identify with what she has been through and cannot fully understand what she is going through mentally and emotionally. But I do feel her pain, and it often cuts deep.

    • Profile photo of Monkey

      August 7, 2015 at 5:27 pm

      Hey Brain, I think there are some ways to protect yourself from catching the emotions too much, or to deal with your own feelings toward your partner’s pain.

      Firstly make sure you have an outlet too. Whether you hit the gym, talk to people on the forum, or scream at the sky. Whatever works, Taking care of your own emotional well-being is important. Many of the strategies that work for survivors, will work for you too. Journalling, finding peers (you can check that one off your list now), meditation, or @aubrey‘s favourite: pounding the earth with a hammer. Just find something to vent :)

      Remember that your partner is likely not looking for solutions. I often just want a sounding board. Someone to talk with to help me organise my thoughts and make sense of what is going on in my head.

      Good luck!


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