Supporting Someone with PTSD

Supporting Someone with PTSD

When your loved one is affected by post-traumatic stress disorder, it affects you too. Symptoms of PTSD can take their toll on family life and relationships. It’s important to remember that someone with PTSD doesn’t always have control over their thoughts and behaviours. It’s hard not to take it personally, but there are constructive ways to help your loved one to navigate the symptoms.

To support someone with PTSD requires a lot of patience and understanding, as well as being aware of your own needs. Your loved one will require you to understand their treatment plan so you can provide emotional support and be a good listener. Rebuilding their trust, ensuring safety, and anticipating and managing triggers can help manage any volatility.

Every single person with PTSD will find they have their own unique triggers and symptoms, and will require different strategies to encourage healing. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help them with their recovery. With our years of experience in this field, we want to share with you some key techniques you can apply to help your loved one to navigate this condition.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that is triggered by a traumatic event. This could include whether someone experienced it, witnessed it, and even those who picked up the pieces after the event such as emergency workers or law enforcement officers. It may also occur in family members or friends of those who actually went through the trauma. 

The chance of developing PTSD depends on the type of event experienced, but about 5-10% of Australians will suffer from PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD is the second most common mental health disorder following depression.

A traumatic event that could cause the onset of PTSD could include:

  • War and military experiences
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • The sudden death or a serious injury of a loved one
  • Serious accidents such as a car crash
  • Natural disasters such as fire, typhoons, floods or earthquakes
  • Terrorist attacks

The psychological impacts of trauma can be deep and complex and can affect us both physically and emotionally. Symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, and severe anxiety. It may affect the way people see themselves, others, and the world around them.

How can loved ones best provide support for someone with PTSD?

Often, people with PTSD tend to withdraw from those around them, including their loved ones. This may be because they feel ashamed; they may believe that people won’t understand what they’re going through or may simply not want to burden them. 

While your comfort and support can help them overcome feelings of helplessness, grief, and despair, it can be a tough balance finding the best way to support and care for them without pushing their boundaries, while also respecting their wishes. You can’t force your loved one to get better but you can play an important role in steering them towards a healthy healing process. 

Provide emotional support

First things first, don’t pressure them into talking about their trauma. Comfort comes from feeling engaged and accepted and talking about the trauma can be extremely difficult and is not always necessary or comforting.

Let them take the lead on what they want to do. They will have more insight as to what helps them feel safe, calm, and at ease.

Do normal things with them and encourage them to pursue hobbies, seek out like-minded folks, and do things that bring them joy.

Learn as much as you can about PTSD. The more knowledge you have about symptoms, effects, and treatment options, the better equipped and understanding you’ll be to help them heal.

Throughout the healing process, you will likely experience mixed emotions, some of which you may never want to admit. Just remember that even if you have negative feelings towards your loved one at any given time, it does not mean you don’t love them.

Manage your own stress as best as you can; it’s important to take care of yourself. The less stressed you are, the better you will be able to help your loved one to heal.

Your loved ones healing will take time and there will be times when it will be challenging. The key is to be patient, stay positive, and maintain consistent support even during setbacks. Make sure you are looking out for yourself and getting the help you need to remain a positive influence for your loved one.

Be a good listener

When your loved one does choose to talk about their trauma with you, try to listen without expectations or judgement. Don’t worry about giving advice or solutions; the act of listening while reassuring them you care is what your loved one needs from you.

Parts of the trauma, as well as your loved one’s feelings that they share, are likely to be difficult to hear. It’s important to respect their feelings and reactions however hard it may be. It’s ok to dislike what you hear; but if you come across as horrified or disapproving, they are unlikely to open up to you again. You may need to find your own outlets to help you to heal from some of the effects of the trauma that is passed on to you. 

An important part of the healing process for some people with PTSD is to talk about the trauma over and over again. Offer to let them talk as often as they need to and resist the temptation to tell them to stop reliving the past.

Anticipate and manage triggers

A trigger could consist of anything that reminds your loved one of the trauma and sets off a PTSD symptom. Common external triggers of PTSD include but are not limited to:

  • Significant dates or times, such as anniversaries or even a specific time of day
  • Certain people, locations or even objects associated with the trauma
  • Sights, sounds or smells that remind them of the traumatic experience
  • Media coverage of trauma or negative news events or conversations on these topics.
  • Confined spaces or circumstances such as being stuck in traffic or in a crowded place.
  • Certain types of weather, seasons or places in nature.
  • Hospitalisation, medical treatment or funerals.
  • Issues in relationships, at work or financial strain.

Common internal triggers include but are not limited to:

  • Sensations that recall the trauma such as old wounds, scars, pain or other injuries.
  • Strong emotions such as being trapped, feelings of helplessness or out of control.
  • Physical discomfort such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, sickness or sexual frustration.
  • Mixed feelings towards loved ones such as love, vulnerability and resentment.

Create a plan to manage your loved ones’ triggers. Figure out what has helped previously and decide together the best way to respond to the symptoms in the future. You could lay out specific plans of action for different symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, or panic attacks.

How to help someone during a flashback or panic attack

Anything you can do to ground someone during a flashback or panic attack can help. Often people feel a sense of detachment from their own bodies during these episodes.

  • Reassure them that even though it may feel real, the event is not currently happening.
  • Remind them of their surroundings and describe what they see around them.
  • Encourage them to take deep and slow breaths.
  • Avoid sudden movements, loud noises, or anything that might unsettle them.
  • Only touch them when they give consent as this can lead to greater agitation.

Rebuild trust and safety

Any way that you can rebuild your loved one’s sense of security will contribute to their healing. Trauma alters the way people see the world; it makes it seem like a dangerous and frightening place. It can also affect their ability to trust others and themselves.

You can rebuild their trust by reassuring your commitment to your relationship so they know you are not going anywhere no matter how hard times may be. 

Create routines with structure and predictable schedules to create a sense of security and stability for those with PTSD. Regular meals and activity times, good sleeping patterns, regular trips for groceries, and consistent housework all contribute to a structured routine. 

Minimise stress at home and ensure your loved one has time and space for rest and relaxation. Create a calming environment in the home to give them a space to heal in.

Talk about the future and make plans that they will want to participate in. A common feeling of those with PTSD is that their future is limited. By planning for the future, you can counteract these feelings and help distract them from the trauma.

Emphasise your loved ones’ strengths by pointing out their positive qualities and successes; this can help them realise their capabilities and give them hope for recovery.

Provide them with more choices and control so that they can empower themselves and realise their capabilities. Taking back control is one of the major healing factors for those with PTSD. Encourage them to volunteer, meet new people or connect with nature.

Support a treatment plan

If your loved one experienced a traumatic event that has led to PTSD, the best thing you can do is to encourage them to seek professional help. Although this may be challenging, there are many types of therapy and medications that have been proven to help with PTSD. 

Most effective treatments for PTSD fall under the umbrella of cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT. CBT can help your loved one to adjust the disturbing thought patterns using specific techniques. Some of these techniques include talking through the trauma and concentrating on where their fears originate from.

Cognitive Processing Therapy – a 12-week course to examine how they think about their trauma and determine techniques to deal with it.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy – 8-15 sessions to confront the trauma and learn breathing techniques to ease anxiety.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing – 3 months of weekly sessions to transition their thought process positively while thinking about the trauma.

Stress Inoculation Training – 3 months of sessions to focus on changing how they deal with stress from the trauma.

Medications – these can help your loved one to stop thinking about and reacting to what happened and encourage a more positive outlook. 

What should you not say to someone with PTSD?

  • Don’t tell them everything will be ok, give easy answers, or tell them to get over it.
  • Don’t tell them to stop talking about the trauma; if they open up to you, this is a big step in the right direction.
  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice or tell them what they should do.
  • Don’t blame problems in your relationship on their PTSD.
  • Don’t invalidate or deny their traumatic experiences.
  • Don’t give ultimatums, threats, or demands.
  • Don’t make them feel weak because they may not be coping so well.
  • Don’t tell them they’re lucky because it could’ve been worse.
  • Don’t take over the conversation with your own personal experiences or feelings.

How to deal with volatility and anger with PTSD

It is not uncommon for people with PTSD to find managing emotions extremely difficult. The condition causes people to live in a state of physical and emotional distress which can manifest as extreme irritability and even explosions of rage.

For some people living with PTSD, feelings of grief, helplessness, and guilt are often shielded by anger. Anger can emanate the feeling of power to counteract the perceived weakness and helplessness that they feel. If you notice that a loved one is showing signs of anger, it’s crucial to defuse the situation before it escalates. Watch out for warning signs such as talking louder, getting agitated, or jaw clenching.

Tips to deal with anger in PTSD

  • Keep a calm demeanour.
  • Create a safe and calm environment.
  • Ask how you can help or suggest a change of scenery.
  • Put safety first, leave the premises, lock yourself in a room, or call for help if it escalates.
  • Give your loved one space to defuse; avoid grabbing or crowding them.