Like so many, my thoughts are with those affected by Hurricane Harvey. As the catastrophe continues to unfold people are wondering how to help.
Offering your home, blood, money, time, effort and positive thoughts are all invaluable. Many are also wondering how to be there for their loved ones or strangers in the wake of this catastrophe.
As a psychotherapist and former domestic and sexual violence crisis response advocate, here are the top suggestions that come to my mind about how to respond in a trauma-informed way.
1. Be Clear About How You Can and Cannot Help
This person has gone through an unexpected event that has had disastrous consequences. Let’s just say surprises are not their friend and they are in a very vulnerable position right now.
It is important to be clear about how you can help and what the limits of that might be. For example, if you want to offer shelter to loved ones, you may need to check your rental agreement for any specific limitations. If you have roommates or a partner, see how they feel about it so you can be clear and up front about any potential considerations.
When trying to help, we can find ourselves flipping between offering the world and analysis paralysis about what to offer.
One strategy is to say something to the effect of, “I am not sure what all I can do, but I can ______ right now.”
Stating that you aren’t sure honors the fact that none of us know the extent of this catastrophe or what will be needed. Focusing on what you can do right now brings attention to the here and now which is crucial in response to crisis. This frame also allows you to take things moment by moment which can also help keep expectations in check.
2. Lead with Empathy
Trauma and stress naturally press that big red button in our bodies that say, “FIX IT!” But fixing it is a process and disasters like this present some losses that won’t be totally fixed. A house can be rebuilt, but family heirlooms can’t be replaced. New happy memories will surely be created in the future, but we’re not there yet. We’re in it right now.
So, release yourself from the pull of fix it by focusing on how you can empathize. For example, say the person you are helping lost their dog while evacuating. They are already scouring all the potential resources to help them find their dog and they express to you how upset they are. They are already doing “all the things” so focus on their feelings.
In this scenario, you might say, “Of course you are feeling sad – I know how much you love your dog.” Or “I know you would move heaven and earth to get them back, this must be so hard for you right now.” Or “You’re not a bad dog mom, you didn’t have a choice. None of us knew what to expect from this hurricane. Everything about it is uncharted territory. You did your best.”
Focusing on responding to their feelings will help them feel heard and understood. Feeling heard and understood can calm down the intensity of the feelings in the moment.
3. Give Choices
Acutely after a trauma, most people cannot figure out what they need and have so many needs happening all at once that the question, “What can I do for you?” can be overwhelming.
So, it’s best to start with closed questions where the response would be either this or that. This could be yes or no questions or a question where they have to choose between two categories. Here are some examples:
“Do you want something to eat?”
“Can I get you some water?”
“Would you like to do something relaxing or something distracting right now?”
Keep it as simple as possible and focus on tangible needs of the moment.
Later, once things have calmed down some, you may ask more open ended questions still focused on the present, like:
“Is there anything I can do to help you feel more comfortable right now?”
“I’m going to the store, do you have any preferred foods?”
“What kinds of activities are relaxing to you?”
4. Honor Their Choices
This might be a given but it’s totally worth saying. This person has just had a lot of choice taken away from them and may be feeling pretty powerless. Giving and honoring choices will help them feel more empowered over time. Feeling empowered will help feel a sense of agency, or the general sense that they can do things in the world.
Honoring their choices can also help them stay connected to their own wisdom. Each of us has an internal sense of what would be best for us in a very specific way. Solutions created by ourselves for ourselves are often the solutions that work for us. If someone else tells us that we should do something else instead we may start to distrust our solutions and ourselves. This can make us feel more dependent on others when we need to find our own path.
Honoring their choices now, even if we don’t necessarily agree, will allow them to stay in touch with their own solutions and feel empowered to act on them.
5. Take Care of Yourself, Too
You know, the whole idea that you can’t pour from an empty cup? Well, there is actually a lot more to the picture.
When a person experiences a trauma and reaches out for help, they need the other person to respond in a calm, collected manner. This could be in a tangible way, like say the helper is familiar with community resources.
This also shows up in a very subtle way like a calm presence. I bet most of us know of at least one person whose presence just makes us feel calm. If you are in the role of helper, you want to channel a calm presence like that because it will help the person you are helping feel calm too.
How does this work? Mirror neurons. Essentially, we each have these mirror neurons that are capable of picking up how another person is feeling. When stressed, our bodies engage the sympathetic nervous system to get us in action to deal with or flee trauma. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system calms all that down (in very brief terms). Mirror neurons can help us tap into that calm feeling from the other person and spark our own parasympathetic nervous system response.
This can also be the way we pick up stressy feelings when someone else is stressed out around us. Because this can go two ways, do what you need to do to keep yourself in a calm state and you will be able to share that with the other person as well. This is a powerful gift that we can give each other alongside trying to help meet tangible needs after a crisis.
6. Give Space for a Range of Responses
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Everybody has their own unique ways of responding to a trauma. In a situation that might make you feel sad another may express anger. Another might just laugh about it all despite the fact that what’s going on may be terrifying. Someone else might be numb and checked out.
All are normal ways of reacting to a traumatic situation. So, be open-minded, don’t take anything too personally and let them feel however they feel. Acknowledge that these are normal responses after a trauma. Giving some space and acceptance as they go through this trauma can be powerful.
7. Foster an Atmosphere of Self-Care With Them
Doing some sort of self-care activity can be incredibly beneficial when dealing with the aftermath of a trauma. But being told to do self-care can feel out of place or even down right shitty depending on the person or situation.
One reason is that if we tell them what to do that reinforces an idea that they are not in power, we are. Another reason not to tell them to “do some self-care” is because they may not be able to think clearly about what they could do. This can feel re-traumatizing as they’ve been handed a situation where there is seldom a clear sense of what to do.
For these reasons, it can help to take a more gentle approach. Consider creating an atmosphere with self-care resources readily available. Set the stage by engaging in self-care activities yourself. Then, invite them to choose activities or participate as little or as much as they want.
For example, you might opt to turn on some soothing music in the evening and ask them if they have any particular songs they want to add to the playlist.
You might pull out various craft supplies and ask them if they want to collage with you. You could stock the bathroom with some bath salts in case they feel up for a hot bath.
If you’re into it, you could let them smell 2-3 essential oils, ask them which they prefer and set up the diffuser with the oil of their choice. If you enjoy the outdoors, you might see if they are interested in taking a short, gentle hike with you.
Always be accepting if they decline. It’s common to need a lot of rest after a trauma because rest helps the body heal. So that might look like a whole lot of doing nothing but they are actually doing something – they are resting. That’s enough.
Taking the lead will help if they are not sure what to do. Making it an experience you do together is far more encouraging than telling them what to do.
I hope these tips help us help each other in the most thoughtful way. My heart and thoughts are with everyone seeking safety and recovering from this disaster. Thank you to all the helpers lending a hand – it means the world.