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“It’s been a month, just snap out of it. There’s nothing you can do about it, what’s the use of being sad? At least nothing happened to anyone you love.” If you or anyone you know has used any of these phrases while talking to someone who has directly or indirectly been traumatised by the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, then don’t.
Such phrases do not help but can cause damage, according to mental health experts.
Hadia Zarzour, a US-based mental health therapist who is currently in Dubai, is no stranger to trauma. In fact, she is currently working remotely with support groups in Turkey that are helping earthquake survivors and their relatives.
Speaking to Khaleej Times she said the most important thing is to ensure that loved ones have a safe space and that they feel that they are heard. “Check on them. Find out how they’re doing and listen to them without judging them. The most important thing is that we should not assume what people are feeling or thinking,” she explained.
“If they want to talk about it, don’t distract them, they will feel dismissed,” added Hadia.
She advised friends and loved ones to take people who need to talk to a place outdoors or a restaurant – a place where they feel comfortable, and the first thing they need to do is to focus on calming the nervous system through breathing – connecting to the body by breathing and grounding.
When disaster happens people can react differently and there’s no right or wrong approach. “Some people rush to help by donating, others feel numb and distance themselves, others watch videos all day long and drown in pain and don’t know what to do. These are all natural reactions to trauma,” she said.
Secondary trauma, she explained, is when people have the same symptoms even if they are not affected directly and are far away. “If you are reacting in any one of these ways don’t compare or judge others for not doing the same. We assume, we judge and we think, ‘what is wrong with my friend?’ ‘why is this taking so long?’” she said.
If people are unable to function in their day-to-day roles and are constantly crying, they should be encouraged to visit a mental healthcare professional. “Pay attention to people around you and notice if their functioning level is not intact,” she said.
Another tip is to truly understand one’s own reaction to traumatic events before trying to help others. “If I need to help another person, I need to really know what’s going on with me. It’s like putting on an oxygen mask first before helping others on a plane. The last thing you want to do is to project your own feelings onto others,” she said.
Nesma Luqman, Clinical Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, also said it’s important to refrain from “fixing” things or minimising people’s experiences and to be patient and understanding.
One tip she gave when talking to people who are affected is to express sympathy. “Express your condolences to your friends or acquaintances who have been affected by the earthquake. Let them know that you are thinking of them and that you are there to support them,” she said, adding, “Keep a check on them regularly to see how they are doing. This can help them feel supported and cared for.”
Another crucial tip, according to Nesma, is to respect boundaries. “If your friend or acquaintance does not want to talk about their experience or receive help, respect their boundaries and let them know that you are available if they change their mind,” she explained.
It’s also important not to make assumptions about what others are going through, according to Nesma and to not take over the conversation by dominating the discussion. “Validate their emotions and acknowledge the difficulty of their experience. You can say things like ‘I'm sorry this happened to you’ or ‘It must have been really hard for you’,” she said.
She said that trauma can be invisible and hard to detect but can leave deep and long-lasting wounds. “There's no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting someone who has gone through such difficult situations, but there are many ways to show that you care,” she said, adding that recovery from trauma takes time and is not always a linear process.
“Some days may be better than others, and setbacks are common,” she said.
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