What to Do When Your Loved One Is Retraumatized

Retraumatization stirs up painful memories from the past and can be just as distressing as that original traumatic experience. Find out what you can do to help a loved one who is going through retraumatization. Take steps to compassionately guide them back to the recovery path and reinspire their empowered perspective.

When Desi was six, she was in a car accident and watched both of her parents pass away at the site of the crash. It wasn’t until she was fifteen that she first saw a therapist to help her process post-traumatic stress disorder. And, now, in her early twenties, she is still struggling with insomnia and flashbacks and daily triggers.

When she is retraumatized, Desi experiences an intense fear of getting into a car, which leaves her feeling isolated and helpless. She is also more likely to drink alcohol as a way to quiet her thoughts and fears.

Everyone’s experience of post-trauma and retraumatization is different, so it’s difficult to predict when and how it will happen. But there are things you can do to help care for someone with PTSD or complex PTSD and manage triggers. It’s also important to know what to do when the person is retraumatized, so you can help mitigate their distress and support them back to a serene recovery path.

What Does Retraumatization Mean for Someone with a Trauma Disorder?

An original instance of trauma could be a natural disaster. It could be abuse of any kind. Someone might witness some form of violence or experience it first hand. War can be a common source of trauma, whether a person is involved in the military or experiencing it as a civilian. And the list does not end here. Trauma is a very personal experience and can stem from any range of intense events.

Trauma disorders can follow these intense experiences when the stress is too much to handle at the time and even after the event. PTSD and other trauma disorders cause lingering symptoms until the individual is able to actively process the underlying source of distress. But this is by no means an easy or straightforward effort. And compassionate clinical help is necessary to guide someone in carefully reshaping their relationship to the trauma.

Post-traumatic stress doesn’t have to be a life sentence. But even during the course of treatment and productive healing, retraumatization is possible. When retraumatization happens, it typically means that your loved one is triggered by a reminder of some kind, and they are forced to relive their terrible memories. It’s important for you to know that it’s possible for this process of retraumatization to be as powerful and painful as their experience of the original event.

This flare of their symptoms can be considered a setback or a slowdown of this person’s progress in recovery. But there are steps you can take right away to help them rediscover their empowered perspective and the coping skills they are developing in treatment. And it is possible to learn more from retraumatization about the triggers and stressors that need more attention to avoid trauma in the future.

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Find Out What to Do When Someone Is Retraumatized

Desi’s roommate and best friend has come to understand what Desi needs when her painful memories are triggered. One of the most important things is that Sarah stays calm even while Desi is in distress. If Sarah becomes anxious and it shows in her voice and her actions, it doesn’t help Desi, and it may even be counterproductive for her stress. Neither does Sarah question or condescend what Desi is feeling. She watches and listens calmly, anticipating when Desi needs space and when it’s time to start offering comforting perspective.

After the first time that Sarah watched Desi’s PTSD get triggered, she wanted to be aware of any therapists or other supportive resources they could reach out to if it ever happened again. Right away, Desi felt a bit better, knowing that the burden of her recovery wasn’t on her shoulders alone. And, fortunately, she did have a therapist she could contact if she ever needed help navigating these painful episodes.

4 Steps to Help Your Loved One

The sooner you can adopt these compassionate steps, the better you’ll be able to handle your loved one’s unexpected retraumatization.

1. Don’t Panic

Retraumatization is not a sign of failure or a reversal of your loved one’s healing progress. It is a normal, albeit disheartening, part of their long-term recovery. Try to stay calm and trust that you have the clinical support and resources at hand to help navigate them to the other side of this trauma.

2. Contact Your Treatment Resources

As soon as possible, call your loved one’s therapist or psychiatrist for immediate advice and next steps. If they do not have an active clinical team, reach out to a mental health center right away to learn about treatment options. The side effects of retraumatization can be very serious and can escalate if not treated early.

3. Offer Responsive Support

Observe what your loved one is going through, and be careful not to force any attention, even with your best intentions behind it. Even talking about the trauma can be a trigger for the person and amplify their symptoms. You will learn over time how to offer your support carefully, and a therapist can help advise you in that direction. And, above all, do not doubt or shame your love done or minimize their pain in any way. Remember that retraumatization can be completely overwhelming and excruciating for them.

4. Learn from It

As much as retraumatization can be a setback in a person’s recovery journey with post-traumatic stress disorder, it can also result in a boost for their strength and hope. Together, you can learn more about the triggers present in their everyday life. It may be possible to avoid or to minimize those triggers in the future. If that is not possible, a therapist can help your loved one to narrow in on those persistent sources of stress to target their healing. It’s true that the journey is a long one, but with continued treatment, they can rediscover their power and begin to understand their own resilience.

BrightQuest offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.