HEALTH MATTERS 4/22: Helping a Loved One Deal with Trauma


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By Aracely Reyes, MSW, LSW

At least some level of trauma has touched virtually everyone’s life.

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Recognizing the signs of trauma and understanding what you can do to help yourself and a loved one deal with the stress is important.

Programs available through Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health can help individuals work through trauma and develop techniques to handle triggering events.

Going Through Trauma is Not Rare

In simplest terms, trauma is characterized as an event or series of events in which an individual’s brain is unable to cope.

Many people think of trauma as relating to intense military service or severe abuse, but trauma can be the result of many other distressing experiences, such as verbal abuse or neglect, emotional abuse, bullying, or poverty.

Moreover, experiences like the pandemic or a change in circumstances, such as the loss of a job, divorce, or death of a loved one, can result in trauma.

As the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) notes, going through trauma is not rare.

About 6 of every 10 men and 5 of every 10 women experience at least one trauma in their lives. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.

While most people experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, they typically recover over time.

However, some people develop PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

It is normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after a traumatic event. Individuals who experienced trauma might have trouble performing daily activities such as going to work or school or spending time with friends and family.

Most people, however, start to feel better after a few weeks or months.

But when thoughts and feelings from the trauma continue to cause symptoms and interfere with the ability to lead a normal life, you may have PTSD.

Some common symptoms of PTSD include:

• Nightmares and flashbacks.
• Avoiding situations or people that are reminders of the trauma.
• Feeling emotionally numb.
• Feeling on edge or nervous excitement.
• Anger and irritability.
• Difficulty concentrating.
• Anxiety.
• Panic attacks.
• Guilt and shame.
• Depression and a sense of hopelessness.
• Substance abuse.

PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not surface until months or years later. They may also come and go over many years.

Risk Factors for PTSD

Though it is not entirely clear why some people who suffer a trauma will develop PTSD and others won’t, there are some factors that can increase the chance.

For example, according to the National Center for PTSD, having a very intense or long-lasting traumatic event or getting injured during the event can make it more likely that a person will develop PTSD.

Personal factors — such as previous traumatic exposure, age, and gender — can also affect whether a person will develop PTSD.

Additionally, what happens after a traumatic event is also important. Stress can make PTSD more likely, while social support can make it less likely, according to the National Center for PTSD.

Opening Up is Key

Trying to hide or mask trauma can allow it to permeate virtually every area of one’s life.

For trauma survivors, sharing what they remember and having their feelings validated is important to recovery and to helping them feel safe in opening up and expressing themselves.

The support of loved ones will help make the healing process easier. To help a loved one heal, start by beginning a dialogue and simply asking if they are OK. Other ways to help:

• Be open to listening.
• Remain nonjudgmental.
• Avoid minimizing the situation.
• Recognize situations that trigger their feelings.
• Practice patience.

Keep in mind, however, that the individual may not want to talk about their experience in that moment. Respect their decision. Let them know you are there if they need you and continue checking in.

If lending your support is not enough to ease their burden, encourage them to seek professional help.

Princeton House Behavioral Health offers a Men’s Trauma Program and a Women’s Trauma Program specifically designed to meet the unique needs of each population. These programs are intensive and last three to six hours a day, three to five days a week for several weeks.

Participants in both programs develop the skill sets needed to ease distress, regulate emotions, improve interpersonal effectiveness, and practice mindfulness.

For more information or to find a therapist with Princeton House Behavioral Health, call 888-437-1610 or visit

Aracely Reyes, MSW, LSW is a licensed social worker and primary therapist with Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health. 

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