How to Avoid Retraumatization When Talking To Your Loved One with PTSD
When your loved one has PTSD, retraumatization can create serious setbacks in their recovery. Unfortunately, retraumatization sometimes occurs unintentionally in the context of loving relationships. For example, forcing them to talk about their trauma or telling them what they should be feeling or thinking can have a profoundly damaging effect on both them and your relationship. By learning how to approach your loved one and talking about triggers in a healthy way, you can ensure that your relationship provides a place of solace rather than one of threat. In order to foster true healing, however, it is essential that they connect to a high-quality PTSD treatment program.
If your loved one struggles with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you know that the effects of trauma can be deep and durable. Healing from this trauma can be a difficult journey and it’s essential that your loved one is allowed the time, space, and resources to recover. However, retraumatization during the healing process can present significant barriers to recovery and compromise your loved one’s psychological health further.
“For some, traumatic stress reactions to a new event can feel as intense as they were when the original event occurred,” explains the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) “Retraumatization is reliving stress reactions experienced as a result of a traumatic event when faced with a new, similar incident.” What triggers this retraumatization may vary from person to person, as each individual’s experience of both trauma and recovery are unique. For some, witnessing similar events, reading about them in the news, or seeing them on television shows or movies can spur retraumatization. For others, particularly victims of intimate partner violence or sexual violence, participating in the criminal justice process can be profoundly triggering, particularly if law enforcement officers are not well-trained in supporting trauma survivors. In some cases, even mental health treatment itself can cause retraumatization if treatment providers do not have a high level of trauma awareness.
Retraumatization can cause significant distress in and of itself while also interfering with long-term healing due to its impact on the nervous system. As such, preventing retraumatization is imperative to optimizing wellness and helping your loved one realize good treatment outcomes. As a friend or family member, you can play a significant part in this process; indeed, research shows that the presence of a strong, loving social support network has a protective effect against retraumatization. However, retraumatization can also occur within these relationships if you don’t take steps to guard against it. By exploring how to support to someone with PTSD without triggering retraumatization, you can gain greater awareness of your own role in your loved one’s recovery process and how to best move forward together.
Don’t Force Your Loved One to Talk About Their Trauma
You may have many reasons for wanting your friend or family member to talk to you about their traumatic experiences. Perhaps you believe that talking about it is necessary in order to heal. Perhaps you want to demystify the experience to yourself and believe that having all the details will help you feel more in control of the situation. But regardless of your intentions, forcing a survivor to talk about their trauma can be profoundly retraumatizing. “The person pressuring the individual to open up is not the one who will have to deal with the psychological, emotional, and sometimes physiological consequences of reliving the experience,” says Tamara Hills, a therapist and certified trauma professional. “If you think of the fact that talking about a bad experience can be, in some ways, similar to [a flashback], you will understand how difficult discussing a traumatic event can be for some people.” Additionally, being pressured to talk can remind some survivors of traumas that stripped them of their agency and bring back painful feelings of helplessness.
It is important to understand that each person responds to and processes trauma in their own way. While talking to friends and family is indeed deeply relieving for some, it can take others months or even years to want to open up. Some may never want to discuss their experiences with you at all. Each trauma survivor has the right to recover at a pace and in a way that is right for them. By telling them that you are there for them if they want to talk but understand if they do not, you are reaffirming their right to self-determination and your respect for their choices. For people whose trauma threatened their sense of autonomy, simply honoring your loved one’s wishes can be an important part of healing. Ensure that you are an ally, not an enemy.
Don’t Tell Your Loved One What They Should be Thinking or Feeling
Healing does not happen in one single way or on a single timeline. Telling your loved one that they should be feeling or thinking about their trauma in a particular way is not only unrealistic, it can also be deeply damaging. Suggesting that they should be over the traumatic event, minimizing the trauma, or telling them that they should think about it like this instead of like that only tells them that you do not understand their experience and compromises their ability to maintain a trusting relationship with you. In fact, it can diminish their ability to trust, period.
Dictating what your loved one’s recovery should look like or taking a tough love approach will likely make them feel unloved, isolated, controlled, and silenced, which may trigger retraumatization. As a result, you remove the possibility of your relationship offering refuge and instead make it a place of threat. In order to prevent this from happening, it’s vital that you listen to your loved one and respect their thoughts and emotions about their own experiences. It is likely that the way they view what happened to them will evolve over time, as will their reactions to the traumatic event. Allow this to happen without injecting your own vision of what their recovery should look like and taking away their right to feel their own feelings on their own timeline.
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Talk About Triggers and Make a Plan
The effects of trauma are complex and deeply individual. As a result, there is no way to know what will trigger someone and what won’t. Invite your loved one to speak openly and honestly about their triggers and if there is anything you can do to help prevent exposure to them. While some triggers may seem obvious, such as movies about sexual violence, your loved one may have triggers that you couldn’t begin to guess. Things like specific sights, smells, tastes, and sounds may call cause a traumatic stress response and being aware of this will help you ensure you don’t inadvertently put your loved one in a distressing situation. Your loved one may have ways they no longer want to be touched or spoken to due to their triggering effects and it’s important to address this in order to keep them safe and your relationship healthy.
Remember that your loved one may not feel comfortable disclosing all their triggers and they are under no obligation to explain why certain things are triggering. It’s also critical to understand that triggers may change over time; the fact that they were okay with someone yesterday doesn’t mean they are today and you must stay flexible and response to their evolving needs. If you unintentionally do something that your loved one experiences as trigger, don’t get defensive; their stress reaction is not a criticism of you, but an involuntary response to trauma.
It is also a good idea to talk about what to do if your loved one is triggered. Ask them if there is a course of action they want you to take and how you can support them. Having a plan can help minimize the risk of retraumatization and make you both feel better equipped to handle distressing situations.
Help Your Loved One Find High-Quality PTSD Treatment
While there is much you can do to support your loved one, PTSD is ultimately a medical condition that requires medical treatment. As such, helping your loved one connect to high-quality treatment is one of the most important steps you can take to help them regain psychological wellness. However, not all treatment programs are the same; unfortunately, treatment providers without extensive experience in working with trauma survivors may inadvertently cause retraumatization. It is therefore essential to seek out trauma-informed treatment providers who have the training necessary to create safe and productive treatment experiences.
As noted in SAMHSA’s Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services:
Trauma-informed treatment providers acknowledge that clients who have histories of trauma may be more likely to experience treatment procedures and practices as negative, reminiscent of specific characteristics of past trauma or abuse, or retraumatizing—feeling as if the past trauma is reoccurring or as if the treatment experience is as dangerous and unsafe as past traumas.
In order to avoid retraumatization, trauma-informed treatment providers create personalized treatment plans based on both established best practices and the individual needs of your loved one. For many, a residential treatment program is the ideal space in which to begin this work, as your loved one will be given the time and space to devote themselves entirely to healing in a safe, monitored, and supportive environment. The immersive milieu of such programs means that your loved one can receive the kind and quality of care necessary to recover as rapidly and comfortably as possible. Of course, your own participation in this process is invaluable, giving you the opportunity to receive the support you need while forging a stronger relationship with your loved one that can buoy them through the healing process.
The best PTSD treatment programs will draw on a broad array of therapies to create comprehensive and transformative treatment experiences for their clients. But they also do something else: restore hope. Skilled trauma-informed treatment providers will help your loved one define what recovery means to them and help them discover that such recovery is possible—they will guide your loved one toward an expanded understanding of their own potential and the skills to harness it. In doing so, the risk of retraumatization diminishes and your loved one can move toward greater resilience, confidence, and joy.
Hanbleceya offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned San Diego-based program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.