for better mental health

Trauma

Explains what trauma is and how it affects your mental health, including how you can help yourself, what treatments are available and how to overcome barriers to getting the right support. Also includes tips for people who want to support someone who has gone through trauma.

This page is also available in Welsh (Cymraeg).

Coronavirus (Covid-19) is impacting all our lives, and we know that the usual advice might not quite apply. Some ideas for looking after yourself may feel unrealistic right now. And some treatment and support options will be harder to access, or may be unavailable for a while. But we hope that you can still find information here that helps you understand what you're going through, and find a path forward.
You can also find lots of resources in our coronavirus information hub. And our page of coronavirus useful contacts can direct you to more support.

This section is for people who wish to support someone who has gone through trauma.

It can be really hard if someone you care about is struggling with the effects of trauma, but there are lots of things you can do that might help.

This page has some suggestions for ways you can support them while also looking after your own wellbeing. These include:

Listen to them

You might be unsure of what to say or do if someone talks to you about trauma. It could help if you:

  • Give them time. Let them talk at their own pace  it's important not to pressure or rush them.
  • Focus on listening. Try to respect what they are choosing to share, rather than asking lots of questions.
  • Accept their feelings. For example, allow them to be upset about what has happened.
  • Don't blame them or criticise their reactions. You might wonder why they didn't do something differently, but they survived however they could at the time. 
  • Use the same words they use. People vary in how they prefer to describe their experiences. For example, it's their choice whether to talk about being a 'victim' or 'survivor' of trauma.
  • Don't dismiss their experiences. For example, don't tell them not to worry about things or that it could be worse this isn't usually helpful to hear. Try to remember that people can't choose what they find traumatic or how they're affected.
  • Only give advice if you're asked to. They might prefer to simply hear that you believe them and are there for them.

"Accepting that I can show my vulnerability without fear of reprisal or punishment has been a big step... to do this I have had to explain to those closest to me how vulnerable I am... and many times when I appear to be the exact opposite."

If someone talks to you about trauma, they might seem unemotional or casual even though they're talking about stressful or upsetting events. They might even smile or laugh.

This can seem strange or confusing, but in fact it's very common - it happens because trauma can cause such strong feelings that your mind may 'cut off' or dissociate from your emotions.

Hearing about trauma can be really hard, whether or not someone shares specific details. For example, you might feel upset or angry about what they've told you. Our useful contacts are here to support you too, and you can read more about looking after your own mental health further down this page.

Learn their triggers

It might help to ask if any situations or conversations might trigger flashbacks or difficult feelings. For example, they might be particularly distressed by loud noises or arguments. Understanding their triggers could help you to avoid these situations, and feel more prepared when they have reactions such as flashbacks.

Tips on helping someone who is experiencing a flashback

Flashbacks are vivid experiences in which someone relives some aspects of a traumatic event. It can be hard to know how to help during a flashback, but you don't need special training to support someone who is having one. It could help if you:

  • try to stay calm
  • gently tell them that they are having a flashback
  • avoid making any sudden movements
  • encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply
  • encourage them to describe their surroundings.

Our pages on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) explain more about what flashbacks are and tips for coping with flashbacks.

Try not to judge

If you've not gone through trauma yourself or you feel differently about shared experiences, it can be hard to understand why your friend or family member can't seem to 'move on'. It's understandable to wish things could improve, but it's important not to blame them or put pressure on them to get better without the time and support they need.

Don't take over

If you're worried about someone, it's understandable to want to help them improve things or to feel frustrated if they disagree about what to do.

But traumatic experiences usually involve being powerless or having control taken away from you. So if you pressure them or tell them what to do, this might add to their feelings of powerlessness.

Instead, try to encourage and support them to make their own choices.

"Accepting support from those closest to me has been tough [because] I always had to be the strong one."

Respect their privacy

Don't share details of what they've gone through unless you have their permission. For example, they might not want you to tell mutual friends or family members about what has happened to them.

This doesn't mean keeping everything to yourself and not getting support. Our useful contacts for trauma and useful contacts for supporting someone else have some suggestions of where to turn. 

Help them find support

If they want you to, you could help them find further support. For example:

See our page on helping someone else seek help for more suggestions, including what you can and can't do if someone doesn't want help.

Look after your own mental health

It's important to remember that your mental health matters too. Our pages on supporting someone else to seek help, how to cope when supporting someone else, managing stress and maintaining your wellbeing all have lots of information and tips on how to look after yourself.

Support options for you

A traumatic event can have a major impact not just on those who lived through it, but also on people around them. If you experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress or other effects of trauma while supporting someone else (sometimes called secondary trauma), it might help to try some of the tips from our pages on helping yourself with trauma now and helping yourself long term.

It's also a good idea to talk to your GP about how you're feeling, and ask if they can offer you any treatment or support.

This information was published in January 2020. We will revise it in 2022.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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