9 Strategies To Help A Loved One Reclaim Their Agency After Trauma
Updated: Apr 1
To have Agency is to have access to choices, control over your actions, and to have a belief that you can choose to act in ways that are beneficial for you.
Trauma takes away our Agency
Whether or not it was a physical or sexual assault, a natural disaster, a terrible accident, or witnessing something horrible, trauma takes away our Agency.
In the face of something traumatic we are left with little to no options except those of last resort. These are the Fight and Flight responses. When those don’t work we enter in to the Freeze response.
To have a Freeze response is to experience our most primal instincts taking over. Our minds have come to the conclusion that fighting and running away are no longer options. Our last resort is to freeze.
This is the way our bodies protect us from unavoidable harm. And it’s not within our conscious control. Freezing up isn’t something you choose. It isn’t your fault. It’s millions of years of your biology taking over.
When we freeze we’re flooded with hormones that detach us from feeling our bodies, paralyse us, shut down our organ functioning, and drastically slow our heart rate and breathing; all in the hopes that the horror will either be over quicker if we seem dead, or that we will suffer less as our life comes to an end.
As scary as this all sounds, remember that the Freeze Response is our bodies natural instinct. It’s something we don’t have conscious control over. And not having control and choice means not having Agency over our trauma response.
Do you or a loved one need support in reclaiming your agency?
What comes after
What tends to happen for many folks after a trauma is a spiral of Shame. A part of them comes to believe that the trauma happened because they made a bad choice. They convince themselves that it was their fault.
A huge part of a survivor recovering from trauma is reclaiming their Agency. Reclaiming their belief that they can make good choices, take good actions, and keep themselves safe.
9 ways you can help your loved one get their Agency back.
1) Let them know that you don’t believe it was their fault.
2) Meticulously avoid any overt or covert communication (verbal and/or physical) that the trauma was somehow their fault.
3) Let your loved one know that you don’t think any differently about them. That you don't judge them. That you still love them. Still respect them. And, are still here for them.
4) Let your loved one know that you want to support them, but don’t attempt to pressure them in to doing anything.
If you pressure them in to making their healing process look any particular way or include any particular treatments only communicates to them that they can’t make the choice on their own. It says that you don’t believe in their Agency.
5) Respect their decisions. If they think something will help, support them to gain access. If they think avoiding something will help, support them to not have to engage.
6) Don’t be “passively helpful.” Don’t leave a book about trauma recovery on their nightstand. Don’t keep sending them articles on trauma. Don’t email them the names of a bunch of therapists or groups you found.
Instead, look for resources (it’s super important). Let them know that you found some things that might be helpful, but always end your comments with something like, “let me know if you ever want them and I’ll pass them along.”
7) Don’t helicopter. It’s so often our response to a loved one’s pain to try and take it all away, to try and fix it, and/or become over protective. But as I’m sure you can tell by now, that only communicates that you don’t trust in their Agency.
8) Be Boundaried. This one is often the hardest to navigate. You’re an important part of your loved one’s healing (you’re probably stronger than you realize), but you can’t do it all.
They have to walk their own healing path. And you have to take care of your own needs and your own healing (because you’re hurting too - you might have secondary trauma). Communicate with your loved one when you need space for your own needs, and trust that they Can have Agency over how to take care of themselves.
9) Connect to others. It is certainly better to have resources already in place before you need them, but you can find them after trauma too. Help your loved one navigate finding and connecting to other folks who’ve experienced something similar. Support groups and activist communities exist across the country dedicated to breaking the silence of sexual assault.
10) And remember to help them on their terms (their Agency).
Healing from sexual assault is a difficult process. But it is made immensely less challenging when we have a support system, and it’s made even less challenging when our support system knows how to support us in Agency Affirming ways (instead of resting upon good intentions).
Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.