5 Communication Tips Around Trauma
The measure of communication is how your words are received.
That’s an unfortunate fact at times.
When dealing with trauma, communicating with someone in your close relationships who has trauma, or if you’ve experienced trauma yourself, you can’t rely on communication that you have learned in other environments or the common cultural narrative.
I do believe in the wisdom of collective knowledge, most of the collective narrative is trying to ensure safety and security, which is good, but it doesn’t work so well when you’re trying to heal and grow. Many scenarios are unfair concerning the collective view. Many people are discriminated against, oppressed, suppressed by it.
Examples of people who experience discrimination are disabled people who can’t access services, a person with complex PTSD from childhood trauma, someone with an auto-immune disease.
The western narrative can be narrow; idolising rational thought and temporary safety.
Cultural narratives don’t always apply, especially if the trauma affected early development. Childhood is a sacred time of conditioning and growth; unless an adult goes through a maturing initiation, they’ll still be drawn to those conditions. In times of stress and duress, ‘the thinking brain’ dims down so that the body can deal with the stress and survive.
Interestingly, this is also an effect of alcohol. Next time you drink, observe how it quiets your thoughts, and brings out more of your emotional experience.
For example, a few months ago, my mental health was challenged by questions such as: “How are you?” and “What are you doing today?”
It sounds incredible but I, and I’m sure a lot of other people who are exploring trauma in therapy, am often unsure which parts of myself are genuinely me and which parts are parts I developed to survive. Which parts of me are a security response to keep me safe from the trauma.
In the healing process, I don’t want to reward the survival response, whilst remaining compassionate that it will surface when I perceive danger. That danger might come in the form of conversation because developmental trauma means that you perceived relating to being unsafe, unstable and akin to death at times.
In the end, it’s up to me to love all of these parts, to understand them. To know where they were born. Some of them aren’t necessary now. I need to lovingly acknowledge that.
I was in a period of intense healing for trauma and those questions brought back contextual memories of sexual assault, abandonment, and resentment.
Of course, I can and will answer these questions, although I find it much more constructive to be asked: “How are you feeling?”
I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. I’m just relaying my personal preference for communication. It promotes a fluidity as if you’re experiencing a state of being, rather than a rigid identity of who you are.
“How are you?” promotes a fixed understanding, and let’s be honest, everyone expects that you reply with “I’m good” — a sigh of relief from both.
Fixed views can be very distressing to someone who is in the throes of despair and hopelessness over the trauma. It’s also a little dangerous; if someone is in a suicidal pattern of thoughts, it can enforce the hopelessness that might make them a danger to their well being.
Suicidal patterning is a strange form of hope. It’s the mind’s way of giving someone a way out of intense and continual pain.
I understand that it’s each individual’s journey in healing to grow and learn through these challenges without spreading them toxically into their environment. However, there are a few things you can be aware of if you’re living with someone who has experienced complex trauma, or the PTSD that comes with it:
Triggers are real
Triggering someone into traumatic memory sends them straight back into the memory, the rational brain dims, and the body enters the somatic state that they used to combat the trauma.
Often the traumatised state is immersion, so the person is entirely in the remembered experience. These states can be exhausting, confusing, and elicit depression, anger, sadness, self-sabotage, addictive behaviour, and a host of other coping mechanisms.
Through the healing process, therapists can help to contextualise this process by revisiting it in a safe, secure, and educated space.
It’s no use bringing up trauma in a family setting. Often it will re-traumatise someone, reinforce the neuroscience — neurons that fire together, wire together and cause inevitable pain and resentment for both sides when the attempted help is not successful.
It can be hard. I understand that. Trauma is an isolating thing, and it can rupture relating. It can hinder an individual’s ability to connect and love. Living with someone who has experienced trauma is not easy.
Getting someone to the point where they feel safe enough to get to therapy is a challenge in itself. In essence, it takes active listening, maintaining dignity, and showing that secure relating is possible. Trauma takes away someone’s voice. They might not know what they feel or think about something. Having boundaries is essential. That approach allows them to see a healthy model of relating.
I can understand that the triggered states are vast and sometimes scary experiences for both the triggered person and those surrounding them.
One time when I was triggered, I slammed my head against the floor twice. I wasn’t able to tell the person that I didn’t feel safe because they were blocking the door, and that my partner at the time had just told me she was leaving; triggering my abandonment wound.
We all live and learn; we all grow through the process. A beauty of having elders around, who have life wisdom, is that they can give perspective.
Allow them space to heal
It’s a challenging aspect of trauma because trauma survivors need safe space and support, yet, they also need space to heal. It’s essential to create a safe space, and then allow them to come to you when they need help. They don’t always know how they feel, and whether they should say anything. They don’t always know how to control their emotions, and this could create an apprehension to be in social space.
If a social space conditioned to only focus on niceties, it can create rage in someone because trauma isn’t a nicety. We all love to ask each other how we are. That’s a human thing, and I’m not advocating that stop. I’m suggesting that if you ask someone with trauma how they are, you can’t only expect them to be ‘good’, and you can’t only reward ‘good’ feelings. The silence around hardship is shaming, and it’s toxic to the healing process. If you don’t know how to deal with something, then say that. It’s better than years of awkward silence.
If you’re silent, then you’ll be adding a sense of abandonment onto the trauma experience.
Set boundaries around topics that you can deal with
This plays into what I said above, if you don’t know how to deal with something, then say that. Express your discomfort, and be honest. Find a new realm of support for yourself and your family.
“I don’t know how to deal with this” is a loving comment. It frees both people to learn and grow and find other resources. If no-one speaks those words, then everyone remains in a tight bind.
That’s not empowering to anyone.
Discomfort, anger, sadness, grief, are all signs and signals within our life experience. If you ignore that within yourself and don’t state that you’re feeling them kindly, then you’ll begin to feel resentful. It’s inevitable; you’re not superhuman, you follow the same rules as all of us.
In my experience, someone stating that they can’t speak about these things outside of therapy, where the conversation can be appropriately mediated, allowed everyone to relax, know that those conversations will happen in therapy and that they didn’t need to happen in the home.
The four horsemen come into play here because they are ways we distract ourselves from telling our truth:
Encourage them to seek professional support
The reason that someone blocks any attempt to deal with their trauma is that they don’t feel safe. That’s a tough thing to hear for family and friends, because the love that exists in those relationships is real, and everyone needs to feel that they can provide safety to their loved ones.
Trauma is more complicated than that; it takes a trained professional to navigate the vast and challenging web of behaviours and feelings that can surface after a traumatic experience.
Don’t worry my love. It’s not your fault that you cannot help your loved one who is traumatised; you only need to pivot your focus and ensure that you are providing the support and encouragement that they need to get themselves into therapy. You also need to ensure that you’re providing yourself care.
Going to therapy for PTSD or healing trauma can be scary, opening up those feelings and somatic states needs to be done slowly and with complete integrity. It can feel like a death of sorts. It can feel like the emotions that come from trauma are too scary to face, or too big to meet. There was a person you became to survive the trauma, and that person needs to be healed and grieved.
Love is all you need. That was a Beatles track. I believe that band was so successful because they sang so much about the essential experience of human beings; the emotional experience.
They sang about love most often. Love is infantilised in western culture. We’re taught that if we find a life mate and secure them in marriage, then everything will fall into place and we’ll live happily ever after. Partially true.
Love is a dynamic thing; that’s why the Greeks had many, many words for it.
Relating needs attention. It’s like a flower. You plant the seeds, water them, nurture the earth, consider the plant and what conditions it needs, then cherish it as it grows.
Considering the plant and the conditions it needs is so vital to trauma. We live in an ableist society, where the assumption is that you’ll work as everyone else does.
Anyone that has had a child with a learning disability, experienced consistent racism that changes the way they have to live, experienced a debilitating illness with no physical symptoms like EDS or POTS, or experienced childhood developmental trauma will know how infuriating this is.
You have to deal with constant misinterpretation. You have to be inauthentic to yourself to assimilate to the social narrative and the anger that comes from those fake actions within yourself.
It’s essential to get the communication correct to be supportive; it won’t always be in the way you imagine, it might be in the way the person struggling with trauma imagines it.
Many people with trauma get labelled selfish because they’re unable to interact in social situations. It’s not because they’re selfish or don’t want to interact socially; it’s because they might fear being triggered by the communication in them.
An excellent example is the story of an exercise class in New York who has a policy of hugging everyone on the door. I’m fond of hugging, and that sounds good to me. However, it does depend on the circumstance of each individual. I don’t want to hug everyone I meet. The class received feedback from people who had suffered in the past from sexual abuse saying that that didn’t make them feel comfortable and they’d prefer to be welcomed with a high five instead. Still contact, still celebration and connection, just a different form of communicating.
That’s an excellent negotiation around how people feel welcomed and safe, and I celebrate the exercise class for pivoting in that way.
There are lots of scenarios in life that are extreme, that might come as a shock, that we don’t feel like we can deal with. There’s familiar rhetoric that people only need time to deal with these things, find their feet again, but being proactive and communicative around these subjects can be so beneficial. The growth journey doesn’t happen if you sit back and hope for the best.
Proaction takes education around the person who is experiencing the trauma, what professional support system is best for them, and how they would like to communicate whilst they go through this. It is entirely possible for a person to completely resolve trauma and return to a healthy behaviour pattern; I did it.
It might take time, money, tears, courage, fear, energy. It might take some unknown territory that feels uncomfortable to navigate, but there is nothing like love and support to get a person through the resolving of trauma.
Choose yourself before you start this journey, choose to heal.
If you’re communicating with someone with trauma in your life: learn to find a balance between how they feel safe in communication, and how you feel safe.
Try your best, know you’re not perfect, that you can’t help them if they don’t feel safe, they don’t choose themselves, and they don’t find support.
What’s your most resonant takeaway from this article?
Peter is a creative coach working to unblock people's authentic creative essence and expression. Using transformational life coaching, meditation and embodiment techniques. He is passionate about mental health, trauma informed practice, spirituality and how to create sustainable cultures that empower in equity.