How to Help after a Trauma

By Dr. Gisela Roth

In our last editions we looked at the effects of single event trauma, chronic trauma and developmental trauma. Today we will look at helpful interventions after a trauma.

We can distinguish 4 stages of post trauma interventions: Immediately after, one or two days after, one or two weeks after, one or two months after. Here is a helpful way of how to behave, immediately after: Be like a caring parent, one or two days after: Be like a teacher, one or two weeks after: Be like a therapist, one or two months after: be like a pastor. What does this mean?

Be like a caring parent: Give simple heart-to-heart care; bring structure into chaos; be kind, be safe, “I am here to help you”; if allowed: touch; use simple language; offer practical help: something to eat and drink, a place to stay, to keep warm, telephone relatives, transport home, lost properties; help with police, press, insurance, bureaucracy. All of these things don’t need a professional counselor.

Be like a teacher: help the person understand what is happening and what to expect, listen to what they have to tell, assure them and educate about normal trauma reactions and warning signs of danger. This does take an informed lay person.

Be like a therapist: The therapist’s role in trauma treatment is in helping the fragmented memories of an overwhelming trauma to become a cohesive narrative. This allows the brain to store it as a though ugly or painful but not overwhelming memory that does no longer intrude into normal daily functioning and sleep. A trained lay debriefer can be very helpful here. When there are ongoing or increasing posttraumatic stress symptoms a professional counselor may be needed. Fortunately most people do not ever develop a full posttraumatic stress disorder after a traumatic event and of those who do 75% recover within months to years.

Be like a pastor: Again lay people can give tremendous help here. Often the whole system of meaning changes after traumatic events, so does the relationship to God. The good news is that people often undergo a profound change in the direction of increased love of God, life and others, as eg follow up after hurricane Katrina has shown. A fellow believer drawing alongside on the spiritual journey can be very helpful. But watch the timing of this and do not impress your own meanings on the person.  Also prepare the person for reactions of the environment such as pressure to stop grieving after a while and anniversary reactions, meaning renewed acute grief reactions at important anniversaries such as 9-11, so they are not surprised and can understand this as normal.

The staff at Tumaini Counselling Centre offers debriefing and treatment for trauma victims. Reach us by phone at +254-728-606911 or +254-733-687050 (note: neither receives SMS) or by e-mail at