From teachers and policemen to doctors and dentists, many professionals encounter people who are suffering from trauma-related conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a person with PTSD myself, I have encountered many well-meaning professionals floundering when my PTSD causes me to be an ‘uncooperative’ and extremely terrified individual. Doctors, policemen and dentists have become very frustrated with me, and in turn, tried to use threats or force to get me to cooperate—the very opposite of what I needed.
Although professional training on trauma is available, it may not always provide practical methods of helping survivors. This article is a simple explanation of what a survivor may be experiencing and how to help a trauma survivor feel safe.
What does trauma look like?
During traumatic events, whether car accidents, childhood abuse, natural disasters, war or sexual assaults, the victim is often:
- Not in control.
These traumatic events happen to them. There was no way to control what they felt, saw or experienced.
- Not safe.
By very definition, trauma is experiencing something to which the victim feels unsafe, whether this is perceived or realized.
How to help a trauma survivor feel in control and safe.
Witness at a police station is sitting on chair, rocking back and forth, unable to control their shaking limbs or make eye-contact with police.
What to do:
- Get down on their level, i.e. sit if they’re sitting.
- Keep a safe distance.
- Talk gently.
- Ask how you can help them feel safe. Do they need a blanket or an object to hold onto to ground them? Do they need a policeman of a different gender or an advocate?
Survivor of sexual abuse is at a dentist having their teeth cleaned. Their legs are uncontrollably shaking and they are unable to keep still.
What to do:
- Talk gently – remembering to keep frustration or impatience out of your voice.
- Ask the patient for permission for everything you do, i.e. “Is it okay if I place this bib on you?” or “Is it okay if I look at your teeth with this mirror?”
- Ask the patient to come up with a signal that they are needing a break such as raising their hand.
- Ask them how you can help them feel safe. Do they need a weighted blanket, or to have music playing, or for you to talk to them during the whole procedure?
Again, the greatest help you can be to a traumatized individual is to make them feel safe and in control as much as possible. Working with trauma victims takes patience and gentleness. Remember, you have no idea what they are reliving, and you may be the one person that can help them overcome their fears and crippling traumatic responses.