Contributed by Christine Binney
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health problem that can occur after a traumatic event. It can be hard for people to know how to help someone with PTSD because it is impossible to relate to their experience. If you have a friend or family member who is suffering from PTSD, you know how difficult it is to see your loved one’s behavior change. It’s important to remember that the person suffering from PTSD doesn’t always have control over their behavior, so you should not take their actions personally. While it is a hard journey for all involved, there are ways that you can help get life back to the way it was before the trauma. Here is a short guide on how to help someone with PTSD.
Understand the inner workings of PTSD
Understanding PTSD is the first step towards helping someone recover. PTSD is caused by harrowing ordeals such as a physical assault, sexual violence, a natural disaster, war, an accident or the death of a loved one. When a person is threatened with or suffers serious physical harm or violence, they will experience intense fear, helplessness and terror.
After a tragic event, common reactions include shock, rage, nervousness, anxiety, fear and guilt. For most people, these reactions will eventually fade over time. However, for people with PTSD these feelings endure for longer than a month. The feelings will persist and even intensify over time, inhibiting sufferers from leading their normal lives. Families of victims and first responders like emergency rescue personnel can also experience PTSD, even though they didn’t directly experience a tragedy.
Learn the symptoms
In order to know how to help someone with PTSD, it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms. People with PTSD are easily startled, have difficulty sleeping, and find it hard to concentrate. They experience intense emotions and outbursts of anger, have difficulty relating to others, and struggle to express their emotions. Physical symptoms include an increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, diarrhea and nausea. PTSD sufferers will also experience flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations which force them to relive the original traumatic event in their minds. They will often try to avoid reminders of the ordeal, staying away from certain people, places or situations. This may keep them from participating in activities and routines that they used to enjoy.
While the symptoms of PTSD are similar for most, the severity of the illness is different for everyone. Most people exhibit symptoms within three months after the trauma occurred. However, there are other cases where symptoms do not begin to appear until several years later. Some people endure PTSD for a long duration while others are able to recover within six months.
Now that you’ve explored the causes and symptoms, you are better equipped to know how to help someone with PTSD. Perhaps the easiest way is to simply be a good listener. Be available and empathetic, but don’t try to give any advice. Don’t push someone with PTSD to talk if they are still uncomfortable with it. If they do choose to confide in you, understand that part of the healing process may involve talking about the traumatic incident repeatedly. Avoid the temptation to tell them to get over it, tell them everything will be okay or tell them that it could have been worse. You need to listen without any trace of judgment, disapproval or unsolicited advice.
Offer social support
Another important way how to help someone with PTSD is to offer social support. It is common for sufferers to try to withdraw from friends and family. They may feel that nobody understands what they’re going through, or they may fear being pitied or judged. They may feel ashamed or have anxiety that they’ll lose control. Some people may simply not want to be a burden to their loved ones. While it is important to respect someone’s boundaries to a point, remember that too much isolation is detrimental. Experts have found that one of the most important factors in recovery is receiving love from others, so do your best to stay close.
Create a sense of safety
When someone experiences severe trauma, they can begin to experience the world as a constantly dangerous place. Work to rebuild their sense of security by creating a safe environment with the dependability and structure of predictable schedules. Communicate your commitment to your relationship, and be trustworthy and consistent.
Learn how to anticipate and respond to situations that might act as triggers. Triggers are people, places or things that bring the original trauma back to an emotional surface. Some triggers are obvious while others don’t seem to have a clear linear relationship. Common triggers include crowds, confined spaces, physical constraints, hospitals and funeral homes. Any sights, sounds, smells, sensations, locations, dates or weather associated with a person’s trauma can also act as triggers. Once you become aware of the triggers that are relevant to your loved one, you can help them try to avoid them.
Have a plan in place
It is not always possible to avoid triggers, so expect PTSD sufferers will experience flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares from time to time. Work together to come up with a plan to make the situation less scary for you both. Talk about what has have worked in the past and what has only aggravated the situation. During an episode, PTSD sufferers often disassociate, so your job is to help ground them. Tell them that they’re having a flashback and the trauma is not happening again, remind them of their current surroundings, encourage them breathe deeply, and always ask before you make any physical contact.
Remain calm during emotional outbursts
PTSD sufferers are in a perpetual state of emotional and physical stress which can lead to emotional outbursts and overreactions to daily situations. Further, some PTSD sufferers use anger as a defensive tool to mask feelings of fear, sadness and vulnerability. Still others try to suppress their anger out of fear of its outcomes, only to hit a breaking point when they erupt.
Before an angry outburst, a person may get red in the face, pace, raise their voice and clench their jaw and fists. Try to diffuse the situation before it escalates by staying calm and reminding them that they are safe. Give the person space so that they don’t feel threatened, and ask how you can help them. Always put safety first, and physically remove yourself from the situation if it continues to escalate.
Encourage professional treatment
Professional help is often an important step in the recovery process for PTSD. Unfortunately, it can be a hard sell convincing someone that they need treatment. Emphasize the benefits of therapy while also acknowledging the limitations and aggravations. If someone refuses to talk when you bring up PTSD counseling, shift your focus to the benefits of treatment for specific issues like anxiety, concentration issues, or anger management. Most importantly, don’t bring up the conversation of professional treatment during an argument or a flashback.
Take care of yourself
No matter how much time you spend caring for someone else, it’s important to make time to care for yourself. Self-care is of the utmost importance because along with PTSD comes a risk to caregivers for potential secondary traumatization. With constant exposure to stories of the original trauma and the frequent witnessing of flashbacks or hallucinations, you yourself are at risk for developing your own PTSD symptoms. The risk is greater if you are feeling constantly overwhelmed and depleted of energy.
According to key findings in the study Caregivers of Veterans conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and funded by the United Health Foundation, caregivers of veterans with PTSD are more likely to suffer the many impacts of caregiving than others. These effects include emotional stress, feelings of isolation, and negative consequences for the caregiver’s health, finances and marriage.
Be sure to find time to take care of your own health and well-being during this difficult time. Cultivate your own support system, and don’t be afraid to rely on family and friends. Don’t assume that you can handle all of the responsibilities of caring for a loved one on your own. There is no shame in asking for and accepting help. Check out our blog post Helping the Community Help You for tips on how to accept help from others. Spread the responsibility of caregiving around and know your personal limits. As always, remember that the community at Lotsa Helping Hands is equipped to provide you with invaluable advice and support on your journey to help someone struggling with PTSD. Know that recovery from PTSD is possible, and with the right treatment and support there is every hope for a bright and happy future.