The impacts of sexual violence can include a wide array of frustrations and barriers to daily functioning for survivors. Watching from the sidelines as a loved one struggles with those difficulties can bring a similar yet different sense of helplessness and frustration. Secondary survivors — the partners, friends, and family members of survivors — often go through their own trauma response as a result of hearing about the survivor’s experiences and witnessing the negative impacts.
Whether a primary survivor is still reeling in the immediate aftermath of having experienced sexual violence, or whether they are struggling with flashbacks and triggers months or years after the initial incident, it can be painful to watch someone experiencing a crisis. It is important to note that a crisis is different than an emergency. An emergency presents imminent risk of physical harm, whereas a crisis is the mental and emotional response when a situation is too overwhelming to be handled by regular coping methods.
As the person on the outside watching someone suffer, it is a common response to want to do anything you can to make it better, and also common to feel like there is nothing you can do to make it better. While you may not be able to fix the whole situation, your presence and support can be an invaluable benefit to your loved one. Here are a few suggestions for small ways to help someone through a crisis:
Know their triggers: Talk with your loved one about their common triggers so you can be on alert in certain locations or during certain activities. Survivors may not be able to explain their response in the midst of a crisis, but you may be able to intervene and provide support earlier if you notice something amiss in their behavior. Of course, this also depends on the level of safety and trust in your relationship. Don’t force a survivor to share information they don’t yet feel ready for you to know.
Re-establish a sense of safety: Survivors caught off guard by flashbacks often feel disoriented and disconnected from the present. Talk with your loved one to re-orient them to their present location and assure them they are physically safe (but only if that is true!). Some survivors need space, others may feel more comforted when they are held close. If possible, discuss this beforehand so you know what to do in this situation. If you haven’t had that conversation yet but they are in crisis, ask what they need from you now.
Take care of physical needs: Bring them a glass of water. Remind them to eat regularly. If they are cold, find a blanket. If they are hot, open a window. Attention to routines and small details can go a long way to help survivors feel calm and centered. It can help them to remember that they can actually function on a day-to-day basis.
Check in with them: Direct and clear communication is an excellent way to show someone that you care about them. Sometimes this may mean making small talk about whether or not rhinoceroses are distant relatives of the unicorn in order to provide a distraction, or it may mean sitting in silence. The area of the brain responsible for speech shuts down during trauma, and many survivors have difficulty verbalizing their thoughts and emotions. If a survivor wants to be alone, allow them that space but also check in with them on a regular basis to see how they are doing.
Set boundaries: Although you may feel responsible for ensuring the well-being if your partner, you may have to come to terms with the reality that you won’t always be able to make it better. Many survivors start to feel better by accessing professional support. You can help them look up resources for additional support. One good option is the Center’s 24-Hour Help Line, which you or your loved one can call (919-967-7273) for emotional support or for more information about other resources. Another good option is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Give yourself credit: Supporting a survivor during a crisis is hard. There are no clear answers, survivors may not be able to tell you what they need, and more often than not you just figure things out as you go. What works once may not work next time. You are doing the best you can, and your presence is an amazing gift.
Lastly, practice self-care: Take a breath. Take a walk. Read a good book. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself so that you can don’t get overwhelmed yourself. You matter, and it is important to make space for that when trying to take care of someone who matters to you.
Natalie Ziemba is the Orange County Rape Crisis Center’s former Crisis Response Coordinator.