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Offering Support to Trauma Survivors During a Time of Second-Hand Trauma

Image Art: Marlene Steyn

Written by Aisha Ishtiaq. Aisha is a mental health clinician and previous domestic violence advocate based in California. 

I have navigated the field of trauma for seven years now, trying to understand the role that trauma plays in a person’s life–how it shapes their worldview, their sense of self and their willingness to trust.

As a young adult, I never wanted to study or work in a field that was entrenched in pain, but I did so to heighten understanding of myself and my own traumas. It has been said the best people to help others heal from their traumas are those who have experienced it themselves.

In working with trauma survivors who have experienced a wide variety of sexual, emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological abuse, I have learned the importance of empathy and the willingness to connect with others by understanding their experiences. I think in this day and age we are missing that vital piece of healing: the ability to have the patience to connect wholeheartedly with others, with their experiences, their stories and their traumas. I believe that is why there is so much unresolved pain and a continued re-victimization of trauma survivors.

I only have to scroll through my Facebook newsfeed to hear about yet another story.  tweet

A person does not have to go far to see how traumatized the world has become, only exacerbated by recent events like the repercussions of Trump’s election, the #MeToo movement and the recent state of affairs in Myanmar, Yemen, Syria and Somalia. I only have to scroll through my Facebook newsfeed to hear about yet another story. The constant influx of horrific news can cause what is called “vicarious trauma” or “second-hand trauma,” which takes place when hearing another person’s trauma and having a visceral response. This can cause feelings of depression, anxiety and, at times, fear. It can cause us to shut down emotionally, which in turn can cause us to no longer connect and be vulnerable with others exactly during a time when others need our empathy the most. We may become so cynical that it causes us to devalue and minimize the traumatic experiences of others during a time when it is vital for us to believe them.

Being able to hear a survivor’s story and to acknowledge their trauma begins their journey of self-healing. However, when their abuse is minimized or contradicted, the survivor may begin to repress their trauma and they may begin to internalize the abuse, thinking they are to blame for what happened. Instead, to help someone who has been traumatized, the following can be helpful in beginning the healing process for a survivor:

1. Listen do not ask questions, make comments, or provide solutions. Really listen to the survivor who is trying their absolute best to explain their traumatic experience.

2. Validate their trauma. It is vital for the survivor to know someone believes their trauma story. Tell them their trauma is real.

3. Acknowledge their current thoughts and emotions. The hurt, the fear, the self-blame, and the trauma itself.

4. Support whatever choice they make regarding their trauma. Whether or not they want to share their story with others or whether or not they want to seek professional help. Allow them to make choices so they can regain the power and self-trust they lost after the trauma.

Traumatic events can be soul crushing. However, being able to have the support needed to move forward can make all the difference.

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