Giving security – tips for dealing with highly stressed people

People who have fled their homes because of war or other events, because they saw their lives and the lives of their children threatened, have gone through a high level of fear and uncertainty and perhaps threatening events or images that are stuck in their bodies and souls and that they cannot easily forget.

This is quite normal – however, especially for children, a lot depends on how parents or other close people deal with it, to what extent they have to deal with the effects in the long run.

In cooperation with the Fürstenberg Institute, we would like to give you initial information on what you should pay attention to so that people who support you as helpers can process the experience as well as possible.

What actually is a trauma?

Trauma is a severe emotional upheaval or injury triggered by an exceptionally stressful event, such as war, natural disaster, accident, death, or violence, that severely overwhelms normal coping mechanisms. In the situation, those affected often feel completely helpless, their existence threatened and experience great fear. In a study from Switzerland, 88 out of 100 people with refugee experience report at least one traumatic event.

What are common changes in people who are highly stressed or even traumatized?

People react very differently and each in their own way to events that have been too much for them. Some withdraw, are quiet, depressed and sad. Others are very restless or much more active than before. Common reactions may include:

  • Sleep disorders and nightmares
  • Jumpiness, irritability
  • great anxiety, fear of darkness, of new things, of strangers
  • Physical pain, e.g. headache, abdominal pain, sweating, trembling
  • sudden aggressive reactions
  • seem uninvolved, sometimes absent, uninterested even in things or people they hold dear
  • hardly dare to do anything, previous self-confidence is lost
  • in the face and body posture hardly show any emotions

What do people need who are under a lot of stress, who may have been traumatized?

  • No internal security without external security!
  • Make the affected person feel – as best you can – that he or she is safe and cared for. What is needed most now is security, preferably from a familiar person.
  • Create opportunities for contact and exchange with familiar people. Depending on the context from which a person has fled, the ability to speak the native language can create a sense of belonging and security.
  • Show understanding if the person is afraid or reacts in a changed way. Explain to her that the reactions come from what she has experienced and that the soul is in the process of processing this.
  • Be reliable and follow through on everything you’ve promised, even in small ways (e.g., “We’ll leave at 9:00 to go to the agency.”) Show you’re there, offer company if that’s convenient for everyone. Safety and reliability help people regain trust in situations where there has been a loss of control.
  • If possible, do not leave the person alone in an unfamiliar environment.
  • Listen attentively to the person concerned if he or she wants to tell – but do not press him or her.

What else should they know?

People who have been exposed to stressful or traumatizing events may relive them over and over again in so-called flashbacks. In these flashbacks, the affected persons have the feeling that they are exactly in this situation again. This can lead to people who have been traumatized feeling reminded in “triggering” situations and also reacting extremely due to the strong emotional stress that immediately emerges with this. At first glance, this can seem quite abrupt and incomprehensible for those helping. Here it can help to react calmly and level-headedly, to offer a glass of water and not to fall into the feeling of fear with it. Approach the person, tell them they are safe here, and provide guidance on where the person is.

At what point does a person need therapeutic help?

As a rule, the changes gradually become less or better after stressful events. If a person remains burdened for weeks and months, you should support contacting a psychotherapist or one of the contact points mentioned below.

If you yourself are also burdened by the events of war or flight, get support and help too.

Dealing with stressed children

When a child has experienced a stressful event or trauma, it shakes their basic trust that they are safe and protected. That is why it is so important, especially in the early days after what they have experienced, that children experience protection, safety and security from the people they trust most – and that is usually their parents. This allows them to learn to categorize that the stressful event was an exceptional situation, but that they are otherwise safe.

It is important for parents to know and acknowledge that their child’s possible reactions are normal reactions to an abnormal event and that, in most cases, changes in their child will return to normal once their child has regained their confidence and security. Parents in particular can make a significant contribution to this as their child’s first confidants.

Points of contact

Trauma help centers in Hamburg:

Trauma help centers in Munich:


Flyer of the Fürstenberg Institute: Flyer German

BtpK: parental guide refugees Flyer German