Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that some people develop after experiencing extremely traumatic events. In some cases, it appears following natural disasters, serious accidents, or combat or military situations. Some individuals develop PTSD after serious personal violations, like abuse, sexual assault, or similar events. Sometimes, it’s not a singular event that causes PTSD, but an accumulation of smaller—but still stressful—events.
Anxiety conditions like PTSD can cause problems at work and school and can even interfere with relationships. If you’re close to someone with PTSD, you may have seen or felt the stress firsthand.
Acting as part of their support structure can be extremely helpful to a person with PTSD, but it’s also a lot of responsibility. If you’re wondering how to help someone with PTSD, here are some suggestions about what to do and what to avoid doing.
Learn about PTSD
The severity of PTSD can vary wildly, ranging from mild to completely debilitating. Anxiety from PTSD often flares up without warning and can send a person spiraling into feelings of anger, shame, or guilt. They may also experience flashbacks or nightmares that force them to relive the event. PTSD often makes people feel constantly on edge, causing them to be easily startled or quick to anger.
Unless you have personally experienced PTSD, there’s no easy way to understand how it feels. The best thing you can do is to do research and learn about the condition. The more knowledgeable you are about PTSD, the better equipped you are to face the various challenges that may arise in your relationship.
Beyond that, don’t just learn about PTSD medically. Talk to the person you’re trying to help. Be sensitive and ask about ways you can support them. PTSD symptoms can vary dramatically from person to person and you’ll learn a lot about their issues just from having supportive conversations with them.
Should You Be the One to Help?
Even if you have the best intentions when it comes to helping a loved one with PTSD, you should always ask yourself, “Am I the one who should be helping?”
Helping and loving someone with PTSD takes patience, empathy, time, and understanding. There’s no shame in recognizing that you are not equipped to be the person helping your loved one. Even if you are capable, some people simply don’t respond well to intimate, one-on-one interactions. Your loved one may be an individual who improves more in a group setting.
You can reach out to professionals or other loved ones for assistance and still remain a key part of their support system.
How to Help
You have many ways to approach helping a friend or family member with PTSD.
Every person has different needs and expectations. Being sensitive simply means understanding these differences and accommodating them. If a person experienced sexual assault, they may feel extremely uncomfortable with physical contact like hugging. Ask what they are comfortable with before automatically acting. You can also ask open-ended questions about anything you’re unsure about, such as how to help when symptoms flare up.
Help Them Gain Control
People who have experienced trauma often feel like they have little or no control over what happens to them. Asking permission and letting them dictate the pace of some interactions will help them overcome a sense of powerlessness.
Individuals with PTSD will often cancel meet-ups and become more socially withdrawn than they were in the past. If you’re getting ghosted or canceled on, don’t take it personally. Reach out to make sure they’re okay and see if there’s anything else they’re interested in doing. Even if they don’t feel like meeting up, knowing that you care can make a difference.
You might think that you need to give advice or provide some kind of resolution to your loved one’s issues. You don’t. All you have to do is listen. Feel free to ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand and don’t second-guess, make assumptions, or give advice unless they specifically ask for it.
Learn and Anticipate Triggers
As you talk to your loved one, you’ll likely find out what their triggers are. A trigger is anything that might remind someone of the source of their trauma. Sometimes, triggers are clear. A well-known example of this is a veteran who experiences symptoms after hearing a loud noise such as fireworks.
Triggers can also be subtle and take time to uncover. A certain song or smell may be a trigger. Even internal feelings can act as triggers. Learn your loved one’s triggers and anticipate how you can help.
Helping with Flashbacks and Panic Attacks
If someone is experiencing a flashback, do your best to avoid sudden movements. Let them know that you’re there and even if it feels real, it’s not.
Your first instinct may be to reach out and touch the person to try and help “ground” them, but this can make people feel trapped. Ask before performing any physical contact. Remind them of their surroundings by asking them to describe what they see around them. If they’re hyperventilating, take slow, deep breaths with them to help regulate their breathing.
Don’t Rush It
PTSD can send a person into extreme emotional states, such as angry outbursts. When these happen, people often want a quick resolution. However, there is no quick fix for these moments.
To prepare for these moments, talk with your loved one about how to help them. Some people have a list of encouraging or calming words they can recite that help them regain control. Others like to focus on slow, deep breathing. Even things like petting an animal or listening to a song can help.
If you’re struggling to help someone reach a calm state, don’t try to push the matter and instead them know that you’ll be there to talk if and when they’re ready. Keep an eye out for signs that the person is feeling on edge, such as clenched fists, speaking louder, or getting agitated. Do your best to remain calm and use your calming techniques. If you’re struggling to help the person reach a calm state, don’t try to push the matter. Give them some space.
How Not to Help
Avoid “why” questions as much as possible. They can come across as a challenge instead of an attempt to support and understand.
Never attempt to compare your loved one’s trauma with someone else’s.
Being optimistic about the future can be a helpful way to support some people with PTSD. However, saying things like “look on the bright side” or “it could have been worse” can convey that you are minimizing their experience. Some individuals may even read into these phrases and wonder why they’re not improving faster, which will only make them feel worse.
Encourage Them to Seek Help
Though your love and support are critical, there is only so much you can do to help someone with PTSD. Many people with traumatic experiences need professional therapy. However, bringing up the topic without warning or pushing someone to seek help may actually have the opposite effect. Never suggest counseling in moments of high stress or conflict.
Instead, try to frame the topic of therapy positively, by suggesting that a professional may be able to teach more skills to manage symptoms, for example. Emphasize that counseling may help them regain more control and overcome issues like anxiety and anger. You can also acknowledge that therapy has its limits. It takes time and finding the right expert is key. However, even if it only helps a little, the effort will be worth it.
If the person is worried about the stigma of seeing a professional, offer to take them to a support group instead. Getting involved with other people with similar experiences can help a person with PTSD feel less alone and can connect them with therapists whom other people find helpful.