Helping A Friend

In general, someone is in a crisis when the stresses they are dealing with overwhelm their ability to cope. Stress can take the form of any challenge or hazard. As such, stress is associated with growth and change; it is also associated with injury and loss. People deal with stress by using problem-solving, social support, relaxation, and other coping skills. Usually there is a balance maintained between the level of stress and one's coping efforts.

A crisis occurs when this equilibrium is disrupted. Like a struggling swimmer who panics and grabs the lifeguard around the neck, or the depressed person who drinks more alcohol, a person in crisis often loses perspective and the ability to solve problems in organized and realistic ways. A person in crisis needs extra support and a reduction in stress to re-establish their equilibrium. As a result, friends of the person in crisis often feel new demands and challenges in their relationships.

When A Friend is Sexually Assaulted, in a violent relationshop or being stalked

People who have been sexually assaulted often experience a range of emotions and reactions, and no two survivors of assault will feel exactly the same. There are some "red flag" indicators that your friend may have been sexually assaulted or is generally in crisis:

  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Loss of interest in most activities
  • Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping a lot, or difficulty sleeping)
  • Changes in energy level, exhaustion
  • Nightmares, flashbacks
  • Fear for one's own safety
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Excessive guilt, self-blame, or feelings of worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Being excessively alert and easily startled
  • General mistrust

These reactions are not unique to sexual assault; anyone in crisis may show some of these behaviors. They can be understood as indicators that your friend's general ability to cope has been thrown way out of balance and your friend is now struggling to manage trauma. Many of these symptoms are common following any severe attack, loss or injury. Your friend may have "flashbacks" (intrusive, vivid memories) about the assault. Your friend may have very specific fears and anxiety reactions related to the appearance of the assailant or the location where the attack took place. Problems in your friend's concentration, sleep patterns, and relationships can disrupt his or her daily functioning. As a friend, you may also experience similar symptoms because your friend's difficulties may stress you directly and strike personal chords with crises you have had in your own life.

For some people, you will see no "visible" indications of crisis because all of their coping efforts are taking place inside of them. This coping strategy may be adaptive as long as it does not go on too long. Sexual assault experts have found the best way of truly recovering from an assault is by acknowledging it to oneself and opening up about it to trusted people.

As a friend, you are a good judge of what emotions and behaviors are common for your friend. If your friend, for no apparent reason, begins to act in an atypical manner, don't be afraid to ask directly what is wrong. You may be the first person to respond to your friend's problem, and for a victim of sexual assault, this is the starting point of recovery.

Remember: Your primary role is to be a friend. You are not a counselor, or a lawyer, or a doctor, Your friend needs to turn to professionals for the best information on emotional, legal and medical issues.

Here are some steps you can take to truly help your friend:

  • Believe your friend, unconditionally. Don't ask a lot of probing questions and don't express skepticism. Expect a friend in crisis to be confused and don't criticize.
  • Let your friend know he or she is not alone. Offer support, offer your time, and remind your friend of available resources.
  • Empower your friend. Help your friend understand and consider options. Let your friend make decisions.
  • Ask your friend what he or she wants from you. You don't have to guess or try to read your friend's mind; go ahead and talk about what kinds of support he or she needs. Keep talking about this because your friend's needs will change as he or she works through the crisis.
  • Tell your friend directly when you see a serious problem. Your friend may have lost perspective or may be struggling to pretend that things are not that serious. When you have good evidence for your concerns, go ahead and share it with your friend. The additional information will probably help him or her consider more realistic solutions.
  • Get outside help when needed. In a crisis, your friend needs more help, not less. A trained professional may be essential to helping your friend work through the assault and resume more effective coping. Your friend may need other forms of support, like dropping classes or changing his or her place of residence, The ASAP program at UNC exists to help victims of sexual assault stay in school and recover. Contact ASAP at 351-1490 for information on how to help your friend and how to understand what you are going through. Trained Peer Advocates are available 24 hours a day to provide confidential assistance.
  • Don't exclude other people from helping your friend. Don't try to do the job of people who have the training to do it (such as therapists). If you do all the problem-solving, your friend may miss opportunities to learn new ways of coping. He or she may also be reluctant to confront important but painful issues in therapy if they have already been discussed with you.

Staying A Friend

You can help provide the opportunities for companionship, closeness, relaxation, and fun that your friend desperately needs. Affiliation helps anchor people and stabilize their perspective in a crisis. Attachment and intimacy give people meaning; play and enjoyable activities offer respite and renewal. People who are depressed need "a break" from their depression. People in crisis feel alone and lost: they need a sense of connection and they need feedback. By staying in the role of the friend, you can help meet these needs, the following suggestions will help you stay an effective friend over time:

  • Try to pace yourself so you can stick with your friend for the long run. Don't be one of those friends who burns out two weeks after the assault because you have taken on a role so intense that it cannot be sustained.
  • Keep the rest of your life on track. For example, it is okay and necessary for you to keep up with your class and study obligations. You also have to keep up with other friends and relationships. It is good for you to model a well balanced life.
  • Say "No" when asked to do things for your friend that are more than you can handle. You have a right to take care of yourself and you don't want to let your friend down by taking on responsibilities that you cannot sustain. Don't be afraid to redirect your friend to their therapist or other support person.
  • Pay attention to your own needs and express them to your friend and others. Your friend's crisis doesn't automatically change who you are.
  • Insist that your friend seek help if the crisis escalates to the point of being worried about your friend's safety or long-term well being.
  • Seek support and outside help for yourself if you find yourself deeply affected by your friend's crisis.
  • Try to keep the relationship on even footing. Your friend needs a chance to listen to your concerns some of the time and to be a friend to you as well.
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