How People Heal From Trauma, Thanks to Helpers

heal after trauma with helpers

What happens when children witness disaster in the news, movies, or real life? It’s only natural for them to feel worried, unsafe, and scared. Adults could feel this way too. Children’s television host Fred Rogers explained how his mother taught him to restore his own sense of safety and stability when witnessing a catastrophe:

“Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers…. That’s why I think that if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams… anybody who is coming into a place where there’s a tragedy, to be sure to include that. Because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

I can’t stress enough the importance of even one safe relationship in the life of someone who experiences trauma. Safe relationships give us hope that we can survive life’s tragedies without irreparable damage. We all need this hope, especially as children.

When anyone experiences violence, neglect, insecure or absent emotional bonds with caregivers, overwhelming fear can destroy their ability to feel safe in the world. Unresolved fear is unlivable – you can’t just ignore it or let it pass and remain unharmed. Emotional overwhelm triggers a physiological survival response. When a person feels unsafe, and can’t restore a sense of safety, toxic stress profoundly impacts how the mind and body continue to function.

Yet some who experience toxic stress are able to develop resilience. These children often have helpers. I can’t stress enough the importance of noticing the people in our lives who provide support and strength. Even one caring person who can invest in helping a child find goodness and secure attachment in a relationship is key to a person’s ability to protect against trauma. Even one healthy relationship can establish hope – a reason to believe that even despite disasterous or traumatic events, there’s a way through, and life can get better.

There are good people out there.

Mr. Rogers saw the importance of “the helpers.” These helpers were there for Elton John and Freddie Mercury, and in almost every story of trauma survivors who ultimately find healing after trauma. I believe these helpers are there for you, too, though they’re not always recognizable right away.

Were there helpers in your past?

Childhood trauma is more common than you may think. Many children feel unsafe or unable to emotionally connect with the very people most important to them — their primary attachment figures. You can’t be expected to feel good inside if you witness violence, bullying, abuse, neglect, or illness, and no real help comes from your caregivers. You may have felt your world was not safe after hearing news of tragedy. But maybe there was a coach, a school counselor, a cousin, an aunt—somebody who reminded you that not everyone is abusive or scary.

Sometimes we become aware of these people in hindsight. Even then, connections to people who instill hope, particularly during childhood, play such a big role in allowing us to overcome the impact of trauma. Even if the seeds of hope seem tiny compared to the size of the fear and danger, the seeds can grow into a vital resource for hope in the future. Can you remember these helpers in your life now?

Sometimes, the helpers do the hard jobs.

A helper is someone who can give you consistency. It’s the person who smiles at you, or sits with you at lunch. A helper might be the therapist who says something you don’t want to hear, or even has to work collaboratively with you to hospitalize you (in order to keep you safe)! It might be the person who provides the structure, the boundaries and the consistency that you may not *like*, but that deep down you know is in your best interest to help you heal after trauma.

When children grow up in families with secure attachment, it’s the parents’ job to set boundaries and hold them. That’s what helpers do, whether they’re related to you or not. It’s the spouse who continues bringing compassion to a trauma survivor, the friend who is still there to love, the nurse who offers kindness and compassion.

How to recognize a true helper.

Many trauma survivors are braced for something bad — waiting for the other shoe to drop. So when someone is seemingly kind, the trauma survivor may be suspicious of their motivation. What do you want from me? Are you going to hurt me? They may even think: I don’t deserve your help.

You can identify a trustworthy helper by their motivation. They don’t want anything in return. All they want is for you to be happy, healthy, and kind and respectful to yourself and others. Helpers lift you up! Sometimes they go unnoticed until later in life. You don’t always see them when you’re in the midst of the traumatic event they answer with help. It may take time to recognize the helpers, and that’s okay.

Here’s to the helpers!

I just want to take this moment to honor and be grateful for all of those people who have planted the seeds of resilience in our lives. Let’s honor these people. Because being a helper isn’t always easy.

Do people know who the helpers are?

To all the trauma survivors who are learning to see your helpers, I applaud you. Part of healing from trauma is noticing the people who care for you, and learning how to take in their love and support. This ability goes hand-in-hand with your own self-care and self-compassion.

To all the therapists who make the hard choices in your patient’s best interests, I applaud you.

To all the helpers, I sincerely thank you. What you do matters a great deal to those working to heal after trauma.

Call me idealistic, but…

I truly believe that kindness matters. Compassion can make our world a better place. Compassion encourages healing for the person who continues to suffer, and compassion expresses care for the person who continues to help.

You can heal after trauma. When there are helpers, there is hope! And if you look around, you’ll find the helpers.

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