When it comes to the process of overcoming a traumatic event, having the right treatment, the support of loved ones and how they cope, make all the difference.
Medical Advisor: Jorge Valencia Ríos – Psychologist, specialist in Cognitive Therapy
PhD in Applied Cognitive Neuroscience
Offering emotional support, understanding, encouragement, being there, listening and truly paying attention to others may seem like simple, everyday activities, but they are crucial when it comes to helping a friend or family member who has gone through a traumatic experience.
“Anything that threatens a person’s physical or psychological integrity, or puts their life at risk, can be traumatic,” Jorge Valencia Ríos explains, director of the Clinic for Anxiety. While it is difficult to generalize, as every case is different and depends on how serious the event is, the person may experience a series of reactions that require professional assistance and the help of their support network.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) is giving more importance to this issue, given the figures that are occurring in the world, and is issuing protocols and guidelines to clinics and professionals in order to better treat mental health – including posttraumatic stress, acute stress and grief – after a traumatic event.
Any person may experience posttraumatic stress disorder at any age. This includes war veterans, and people who have survived physical or sexual assault, traffic accidents, catastrophes, violent acts or other serious incidents. As the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health states, not all people with PTSD have gone through a dangerous situation; some events, like the unexpected death of a loved one, may also cause this disorder.
“Often, what happens to those who have undergone trauma is that they lose their sense of safety. In fact, one of the issues they have to work on is beginning to develop a sense of trust in others again so they are not always thinking that anyone could hurt them,” our psychologist states.
Because these intense experiences tend to cause trauma and symptoms of anxiety and depression, Valencia states, starting a psychological or psychiatric process is key. For this to work, the patient should trust in and be consistent about this process and join a support group, as this will allow them to learn from the stories of others who have gone through something similar and have overcome it, motivating the patient to follow their example.
Use your own resources
As Jorge Valencia Ríos explains, psychology uses a concept that is critical to these processes referred to as “coping strategies.” These strategies are the cognitive and emotional resources we have at hand to deal with the challenges of life. During difficult times, there are those who remain victims, asking themselves why this happened to them; and those who, despite their sadness, take a proactive approach and have better coping skills that give them the resources to begin to adapt to a new state of balance that is more solution-based.
“One principle of psychology says that as humans, instead of understanding reality for what it is, we understand it according to the frameworks we have in our heads,” our psychologist explains. This explains why those who use an “I can’t” approach, even before the traumatic event occurs, will have a hard time dealing with problems. But for those who have managed to establish a “Yes, I can” mentality or an approach of “If I try, I will get results, regardless of the traumatic event,” will have less chances of getting stuck.
Certain resilience factors (the ability to adapt to an adverse state or situation) can help patients in these situations: talking about what affects them, getting to know themselves better, identifying their weaknesses and stressors (something that causes stress), and identifying what strategies help them to control their anxiety during hard times.
Having a support network is, again, part of having these reliance factors; and while friends and family members are willing to listen, collaborate, and help with decision-making if necessary, they must also respect the pace of the person who is dealing with the trauma. “Trauma has different stages to it, one of which is denial. Sometimes the situation is very difficult to digest, and the person is just beginning to understand what happened. It is also about thinking of who will listen. Being supportive is also about knowing when someone else can be more helpful than ourselves.”
Tips for self-care
- If an irreversible illness is diagnosed, speak with your physician about treatment options.
- Do exercise to help reduce stress.
- Find out which symptoms will improve gradually instead of immediately.
- Identify and seek out situations, places and people to comfort you.
How to help a friend or family member
- Learn about trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder in order to understand what your friend or family member is going through.
- Spend time doing activities that can distract them, such as exercising, going for walks and excursions, and doing other activities together.
- Be aware of the symptoms or warning signs that may arise and have the contact of a therapist if it becomes necessary to give them a call.
(Source: U.S. National Institute of Mental Health)
Related: That invaluable network of friends