How to help someone who is in a traumatized state

How to help someone who is in a traumatized state



Since I spent the last two days in the spotlight as a trauma therapist, I had the opportunity to gain insight into the current situation on the field. Croatia has been hit by a devastating earthquake that took a toll on an already under-developed region that was still struggling to build up after the war 30yrs ago.

During my time there, I visited hundreds of people to provide them with instant help and support, but I am well aware that adequate and professional help will still be needed in the upcoming weeks and months.
What EVERYONE, regardless of vocation and profession, can and should provide: is human help, support and presence. I’ve seen so many people, flocking to this area carring food and supplies. And I urge them to keep helping and not give up – in the coming DAYS, WEEKS, MONTHS.

Yet, I know that this post will be read by you, who is sitting on a different side of the globe – so to you – I wish to share my experience and knowledge. For you may find yourself one day in a situation where you need to address someone in need. Someone who suffered a great trauma, a shock, an unimaginable situation.


Here’s what you can do in the face of Trauma

First of all, I would like to point one crucial thing:


That is why I wrote these basic instructions for everyone to do their best, respecting the current fragile condition of the person/people they are facing.

You see, only after the first shock, when the adrenaline starts to subside, people will start to process what actually happened. They will then start trying to return to a normal, familiar state, and realize that it will never be the same as before the earthquake (or any trauma). This is especially true if they were previously traumatized – like in this case by the war, and many by many other traumas, so the earthquake carries not only weight and consequences per se but also the potential for re-traumatization or surfacing from previous traumas that in most cases are not healed.

Although this area is complex, broad and deep – I will try to write down what’s most important at the moment of first contact.

Each of us deals with trauma in our own way and therefore each person needs to be approached individually. Therefore, in the hope and faith that many of you will remember this, especially if you visit places affect by natural disasters in hope of aid – I would like to give you a few specific instructions on how best to approach all people in general.



9 Steps to follow when aiding someone

When we are in a traumatic state, and soon after it, we are ruled by a primitive part of the brain that we share with animals. Our neocortex, that differentiates humans from animals, is in a “shutdown”. That means that so we can not think rationally, make decisions, plans etc.

Therefore, imagine that the people you visit are like frightened animals. Approach them gently and considerately like you would approach a deer, an abandoned puppy, or any other animal.


1. Move slowly, without sudden movements. Observe their body language.


2. Give them a chance to approach you first. Most will not dare but will sit, stand, lie down or jerk and back away, and some may even instinctively “attack” out of the urge to protect themselves or loved ones (although for you it makes no sense). It is the so-called “fight, flight or freeze” reaction and as I mentioned it is very individual. Respect the condition in which the person is in.


3. When approaching them, walk slowly, speak in a clear, understandable voice, and keep your hands visible.


4. Introduce yourself and tell them the reason you came. Stop. Don’t rush. Watch how they react.

a) If they pull away from you (take a few steps back, squat, cross their arms over their chest, turn their back, look away …) do not force them, do not walk towards them, do not force them to do anything. Let them know that you are there for them and that you will leave them the things you brought them there somewhere (put them near you) so they can take them later. They will probably relax a bit there so ask them what they specifically need and how you can help them.

b) If they approach you, do not rush, especially not with physical contact. Most will avoid physical contact and although you certainly have a big heart and would rather hug them all, remember the frightened animal. You are not here for yourself but for them and therefore it is important that we respect their current state, their boundaries. It that moment most are trying to keep strong as a rampart, as not to fall apart.


5. Communicate in a clear, understandable voice, be compassionate but DO NOT PITY THEM.

THEY NEED TO BELIEVE IN THEM AND THEIR ABILITIES, and not in our pity. But that by no means means that we belittle their fear, sadness, anger, or anything else they feel. Therefore, USE WORDS AND PHRASES THAT ARE REAL FOR THEM AT THAT MOMENT. Otherwise you will not only lose their trust but you will leave the impression that you consider them stupid.

For example, you can say, “I’m extremely sorry this happened to you, and that’s why I’m here.”
Ask them how they feel. Some will not know how to name a feeling, some will automatically say “good”, some will say, for example, “scared, sad, lonely …”.
If they name a feeling, you can say, “I understand how you feel, it’s perfectly normal for you to feel that way.” (It’s very important to ‘give them permission’ to feel how they feel, because otherwise we would add to all those feelings more sense of guilt and shame, that smolders in them anyway.)

If they say “good” – even though you know there’s no way they feel good, don’t push with statements like “Are you sure? Well, you certainly don’t feel well after all this..” etc.  Again, RESPECT that this “good” is their current maximum.
If they don’t know how to name a feeling, you can say, “I believe you can’t describe how you feel, that’s perfectly normal in this situation.”


6. Give them a chance to talk if they want to. Be present, listen to them carefully, looking them in the eye.


7. Be very careful with physical contact – from touching their hand, placing your hand on their back, to hugging. Do not touch them if you notice that it does not suit them. Be sure to observe their body language before touching when you even try to extend your hand towards them.


8. ONLY IF AND WHEN you see that they crave a hug, open your arms and give them a chance to APPROACH YOU and hug them. In that case, feel when they let go of the hug, when they want to move away, and then let them go. Neither before, nor after.


9. Before leaving, give them realistic, supportive words like, “I believe in you. We go hour by hour, day by day. Although you do not know now what you will do and how you will proceed, it is quite normal, believe that the answers and solutions will come to you. ”
Also instead of reassuring them that they will certainly not shake anymore (like in the example of earthquakes), say: “Yes, there may be even smaller earthquakes, this is common after larger earthquakes, but I believe the worst is behind us.”


Remind them that it’s okay to seek help and that many people are there for them.


If you find yourself on the field, aiding a large number of people – KEEP YOURSELF FROM OVER-BURNING.

Remember that we are needed in the long run.

Good luck to all of us, let’s support each other and continue to make the world a better place.

I send you an abundance of love and light.



Petra Brzović

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