by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghOctober 7, 2018 abuse, abuse resources, domestic violence, help for trauma victims, rape, resilience, survivors, trauma counseling, validation, victim blaming, victims0 comments
How to Provide Grace and Resiliency to a Friend or Family Member Who Discloses Trauma.
According to the United States Veterans Administration, about 50% of women and 60% of men will experience trauma at some point in their lives. Trauma is defined as an emotional response to a distressing event. Traumatic events can include witnessing or experiencing sexual or physical assault, violence, robbery, or attack. We are not all equipped with a vast understanding of psychology, and when a friend or family member turns to us with their memories of a traumatic event, more than ever we could benefit from some information on how to respond with validation, support, and compassion. The literature on trauma widely cites how important loved ones’ responses are to survivors’ disclosures of the events that they experienced. In fact, in a 2016 study by Lischner and Hong at the University of Washington, invalidating responses of friends, family, and others are correlated with an increased likelihood that the survivor will experience psychopathology including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With the number of people who have survived trauma growing each year, it becomes ever more likely that someone will turn to you with their memories of a traumatic event. Below we will highlight some invalidating responses and provide validating responses so that each of us can do our best to provide caring support to those who may approach us with their heavy burden.
Validation is defined as responding with empathy, agreement, acknowledgement that we believe what was shared and that it makes sense. We can validate many levels of expression and meaning, feelings as well as thoughts. As a couples counselor, I help couples use the tool of validation to comfort each other in conflict. Validation is powerful. Some validating responses are;
- ‘Thank you for trusting me enough to share this.’
- Summarize the memories that were shared, always referring to them as memories or experiences.
- ‘That must be so (painful, scary, traumatic, other feeling word) for you.’ Summary of emotions, this is to indicate a full understanding of the feelings that the person shared.
- ‘You were so strong and brave in sharing your experiences.’ This is a compassionate response that highlights their survival skills.
- ‘How can I support you further?’ Letting the person know that you are glad to discuss any of it further, that you want to be there for them in any way that they need.
Invalidating responses can cause survivors to feel anxious, depressed, panicked, overwhelmed, and called to defend themselves and their pain. Many trauma survivors cite that invalidation from family or friends of their traumatic event is at times just as distressing as the trauma itself. Invalidation can be consciously used as a tool to manipulate and coerce, and it can be unconsciously done because the recipient to the confidence doesn’t know how to respond or help. Some examples of invalidating responses are as follows:
- ‘Why are you bringing this up right now?’ Every survivor unfolds their trauma memories to different people and in varying times, when and how they will share their trauma and with who it feels safe to share.
- ‘Are you sure you remember this accurately?’ The first duty of love is to listen and validate, provide understanding, care, warmth, and support. It is not a good time to put them on the witness stand for cross examination.
- ‘The perpetrator remembers it differently.’ Attend to the survivor’s feelings first and save the fact checking for a different time and day. Even if you feel called to defend the person or event that is being discussed as the source of trauma, this survivor is sharing something very vulnerable and the immediate need for understanding and care would indicate that we should triage and be delicate.
- ‘Try not to think about it and put it behind you.’ This response indicates that the person’s experience of grief, pain, panic, anxiety, is something that can be dismissed. Working with trauma clinically provides opportunity to experience the depth of the memories and emotions to be reprocessed. There is much evidence that the more we think we should be able to dismiss our responses to trauma, the more likely we develop PTSD.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you recognize after reading this that you may have been invalidating to someone in the past. ‘We all do our best and when we know better, we do better.’ Maya Angelou
Please pass this along. Every day another person survives and attempts to thrive in the wake of pain and anguish. Each of us has the potential power to be a safe zone, to provide support, help, and healing for those who are making sense of traumatic events, we have the ability to provide resiliency against emotional pain and we can create a buffer and reduce the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
With resiliency and hope,
Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC
*The is not a replacement for mental health support provided in a clinical setting by a licensed counselor, psychologist, or clinical social worker. If you or a loved one has experienced trauma and are working through its effects, reach out to a therapist near you.
Thank you to our editor, Dr. Stellan Wijkstrom.
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by Counseling and Wellness Center of PittsburghJune 21, 2018 counseling for PTSD, psychology, psychotherapy, ptsd, trauma, trauma informed care, trauma therapy0 comments
We have fantastic and astonishing memory abilities, the human mind and its processes, particularly in the way we store and retrieve the effective memories which then effect the way that we store and respond to our other memories and sensory input. Evolutionary psychology examines the way some things that can be problematic are often helpful to us in the past and as we evolved. This is especially true for trauma survivors. According to the American Psychological Association, Trauma is an emotional response to a event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster, abuse or assault. Immediately after the event, shock, emotional upheaval, loss of ability to function, and denial are typical. Trauma is especially present in situations where a person feels powerless and their sense of control are taken. Long term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea, nightmares, inability to rest or calm down, feeling tearful, experiencing fear and heightened startle response. While these feelings are very universal response to the paralyzing fear that is associated with trauma even if the survivor reports feeling neutral in the moment. Biology offers some rational for how we can feel afraid but work through it in the moment of the traumatic situation, but it is later when we are safe and comfortable that the panic can emerge, generally emotions are something that can be seen and felt most when everything is alright around us, meaning the traumatic event is over and we are safe. Some people have difficulty moving on with their lives because trauma can result in long term effects such as post traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and addiction.
There are so many events that we experience which are traumatic, whether these develop into the more complex constellation of behaviors which we identify as PTSD, really depends on an interplay of biological, social, and other environmental factors. Some of the situations which can cause a trauma response include, domestic violence, sexual violence or assault, car accidents, national tragedies, serving in war, robberies. It is possible that we can experience a traumatic response my witnessing these events even if we are not the direct recipient of the threatening attack.
People who later feel the emotional and physical effects of trauma may wonder, what is wrong with me? Also, even if the event seemed manageable in the moment, it seems bizarre that they keep seeing flashes of it months or years later. The answer is while the effects of trauma can be debilitating, our cognitive processes are primed to be traumatized. Evolution explains that we and our ancestors are wired to hold tight to frightening or threatening experiences, imagine what happened to all of the humans who did not startle and produce massive amounts of cortisol and adrenaline at the sight of the saber toothed tiger just through the northern passage on the savannah. They died and did not evolve to have offspring in our gene pool. Having memory of dangerous events, people, situations, and gearing up to flee or protect one’s self is a sign of an evolutionarily healthy adaptation, it allows us to stay safe by avoiding possibly dire situations. In fact, our Vagal nerve which communicates directly to our bodies, without having to yield the advice of our logic, there are long term changes in the way that our Vagal nerve responds to triggers after we have experienced trauma. The vagal nerve is what allows healthy people to experience the ‘startle response’ for example when someone sneaks up behind you, usually we respond with a physical jerking motion in our bodies, and literally jumping. In domestic violence survivors, being ‘jumping’ and easily startled when a person raises their hand, is a well noted phenomenon that may last an entire lifetime.
We are wired to remember traumatic events. Survivors of trauma know that the sight of the perpetrator of their violence, even a coat that’s the same color as the one their attacker had worn can evoke the fear response. ‘Triggers’ are any stimuli which we associate with the traumatic event. These triggers and their associated memories can and do produce a jolt to the vagal nerve resulting in heightened, panicked, and anxious response in the person who is perceiving them. The biological response when we encounter a trigger are a plenty, our bodies enter a state of hyper-arousal, respiration becomes more shallow, heart beat rises, and fear settles in, even cognitive function is impaired as our higher order reasoning is impeded and all neurological resources are yielded to the hind brain and its motor and autonomic functions. The one and only thought becomes fight, flight, survive, and in some cases freeze. Remember, just like on the savannah in the seat of civilization, the extra energy our bodies create allow us to escape danger.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, systematic desensitization, and exposure therapy, and some therapies which aim to change the tone of the vagal nerve are recommended ways to work through the trauma and empower the survivor to be able to withstand exposure to triggers and regain emotional wellness. It is recommended that trauma survivors do their best to limit exposure to triggers as they heal from the event and associated memories. If you feel that you may be experiencing long term effects from a traumatic situation, it is recommended that you work with a therapist who is specifically trained in trauma informed care. Healing will allow the processing of the entire event, client and therapist will identify triggers, developing the capacity to respond to triggers with mindful balance, and work through the effects of any other psychological effects from the trauma.
Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh, Serving Western Pennsylvania with Individual Therapy, Couples Therapy, Family Therapy and Wellness Services.
Today’s article is devoted to a serious issue, domestic violence. With more and more abused partners seeking refuge within shelters and therapy offices, one would imagine that there would exist a cultural and personal awareness of abuse that could protect survivors before violence reaches extremes. However, the lines that exist when violence and abuse pervade the sanctum of a relationship are often fuzzy. This is made even more complex by the fact that we as a society are so quick to blame the victim. You have heard it said before, “why doesn’t he/she just leave?” The reasons that some stay anchored in an abusive relationship are aplenty, some examples include, they are afraid, they may want to stay for their children or family, they may remember times when the relationship was healthy, the survivor may not have access to financial resources, their self esteem and mental health may have eroded from years of suffering because the survivor is receiving strong messages from their abusers that they are to blame for what is happening! It is hard for many to understand how the survivor could be blamed for what is happening. For example after a violent attack, the attacker may ‘gaslight’ the target by denying that anything even happened, saying things like “I didn’t touch you!” “Why are you upset? You’re being dramatic! If you hadn’t gotten out of line this wouldn’t have happened.” Other times the victim may fight back against the perpetrators grabbing, pulling, shoving, barricading, slapping, choking, and then the fault lines become even more hazy, as the victim feels guilty for having struck another and begins to truly internalize the fact that this is all his or her fault.
The hopeful message of this humble essay is that as a psychological and humanitarian community we provide opportunity for intervention before the violence has a chance to escalate to the newspaper headlines or obituaries. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2000 1297 women were killed by a romantic partner and 440 men by a partner. How do these men and women slip through the cracks, how do they avoid the potential help that could ally within co-workers, friends or family? Often individuals in violent situations are alienated with limited social supports. Simultaneously, the abuser may be clever in where he or she places the marks so that the attacks are not as immediately visible. Also, the victim will be an expert at covering up any hints of bruises or contusions because they love the person who is abusing them and don’t want to see their partner end up in trouble nor do they want to burden anyone with the knowledge that something is amiss in what may appear to be their picture perfect life.
Statistically, there is a relationship between domestic violence and the suffering from other mental health diagnoses such as a depressive disorder, self-esteem issues, and these can sometimes be further complicated by the presence of drug or alcohol abuse. Whether the violence causes such problems or people with these dispositions are more likely to enter abusive relationships is an entirely different topic, this writer simply notes that there is a relationship. How can we help someone who we think may be experiencing Domestic Violence to prevent death and further destruction from occurring?
1) Educate our young and old on the signs and symptoms of abusive relationships. The earlier that people learn to see a relationship for what it is the more likely that they will leave.
2)Remain vigilant of anyone that you think may exhibit signs of violent or abusive behavior.
3) Keep the lines of communication open for those you fear have entered an abusive relationships, keep in mind that the friend may have not been in touch in a while because of their abuser.
4) If someone you know is in an abusive relationship do not push them to leave, this may only alienate them further. Do your best to express to that person that you are there for them as a friend and that you respect their will and choices.
Some of the signs of abuse
~An uncontrollable temper
~Tells their partner how to dress
~Tells their partner that they are worthless, that they will never find another mate again
~Easily becomes jealous and possessive
~Forces or insists upon sex
~Destroys belongings such as clothes, electronics, or automobile
~Threatens suicide if their partner tries to leave
~Touches, grabs, restrains, or chokes, pushes, solicits any physical touch after hearing ‘no.’
~Diminishes their partners will to make important choices
~Restricts his or her partners ability to leave him or her
~Shows up at their partners home, work, school, families house/ etc against your wishes
~Constantly checks up on their partner
~Insists on controlling the money, car, or other resources *Financial abuse is a separate kind of abuse which often co-occurs with physical and emotional violence. I.e.
~Stealing from their partner/ taking their money
~Restricting partner to an allowance
~Sabotaging their partners job
Remember abuse is confusing, after years of having ones feelings minimized, it may feel strange or dramatic to label what is happening as abuse, abuse is insidious and nobody should be touched or belittled, abuse starts out small before ending as the kinds of violence that we all have heard about on the news. Often abusive relationships have periods of time where everything seems perfectly fine, but if a person has touched you in a violent way once they are quite likely to do it again. Violence is by definition when someone restricts your ability to move about freely and independently as a human by chocking, pushing, grabbing, pulling, smacking, slapping, punching, hair pulling, it is violent for anyone to touch you when you have asked them not to! Often an abuser will physically assault their target until they become passive, the right to walk, roam, and be is your legal and physical right. Abusers are masters at making excuses for unthinkable acts. They will stop at nothing to blame you for their violence that they were only trying to help you, even trying to convince the target that it didn’t happen. They will classically promise the target that it will never happen again. The abuser will be his or her most charming after an attack, the honeymoon period is a soothing time for the target. This makes it very difficult to leave the abuser because the abused person usually wants to believe that this painful behavior is finally over and when the abuser is doing and saying all of the “right things” and ‘love-bombing’ their target, it is very hard to leave.
The cycle of violence in domestic abuse
- Abuse – The abusive partner lashes out with aggressive, belittling, or violent behavior. The abuse is a power play designed to show the target “who is boss.”
- Guilt – After abusing the target, the abuser partner feels fearful not guilt over what he’s or she’s done. He’s or she is more worried about the possibility of being caught and facing consequences for his or her abusive behavior.
- Excuses – The abuser rationalizes what he or she has done. The person may come up with a string of excuses or blame you for the abusive behavior—anything to avoid taking responsibility.
- “Normal” behavior – The abuser does everything he or she can to regain control and keep the victim in the relationship. She or he may act as if nothing has happened, or may turn on the charm. This peaceful honeymoon phase may give the victim hope that the abuser has really changed this time.
- Fantasy and planning – In characterological violence, the abuser begins to fantasize about abusing their target again. Or they spend a lot of time thinking about what they imagine the target has done wrong and how he or she will make you see what you did. Then the abuser makes a plan for turning the fantasy of abuse into reality. In situational violence, generally the abuser has less of a plan and explodes in the moment, both kinds of violence are equally dangerous.
- Set-up – Your abuser sets you up and puts his plan in motion, creating a situation where he can justify abusing you.
Some relationships are not as they seem! Awareness is the first step towards a healthier you, a more empowered family and society, if you or someone you know is suffering from the abuse it’s never too late or too early to make a change. For other resources please visit:
Or for 24 Hour emergency service
The Womens Shelter Hotline
(877) 338-8255 (toll free number)
In health and Wellness,
The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh
Therapy, Marriage Counseling, and Family Counseling in Western Pennsylvania
830 Western Avenue
Pittsburgh Pa 15233
2539 Monroeville BLVD Monroeville PA 15146