Post-traumatic stress disorder is commonly portrayed in television shows and movies, usually among war veterans returning from combat. However, even as greater visibility is given to this mental illness, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it is, who can experience it and how it affects friends and family.
For someone with PTSD, normal events can bring on flashbacks of traumatic events, causing them to feel as though their life is in danger at that moment. While it’s hard for individuals to know what it’s like to have PTSD, by understanding how trauma changes the way the brain works and knowing what to expect, they can support their loved one’s journey to recovery.
What Causes PTSD?
PTSD is a mental illness that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. While combat veterans screen positive for PTSD at a relatively high rate, they aren’t the only ones who experience this illness. PTSD can occur in anyone, regardless of age, nationality, gender or culture, and can result from any incident that threatens the individual’s safety. Events that may cause PTSD include serious car accidents, assault, childhood or domestic abuse, exposure to traumatic events at work or school, serious health-related incidents and negative childbirth experiences.
A Day in the Life of Someone with PTSD
PTSD has a profound impact on the individual’s life, but how the individual experiences symptoms largely depends on their personality and the trauma they were exposed to.
A common coping mechanism for dealing with PTSD is for the individual to avoid anything that may remind them of the trauma. For example, if someone has PTSD from a serious car accident they were in, they may avoid driving or even being in a vehicle. If the event happened at a certain location, such as a school or workplace, they may want to stay away from that place. Avoidance may also happen internally; the individual with PTSD may avoid thoughts or feelings that cause distress. This can have a negative effect on the individual’s life, causing them to avoid normal situations and interactions.
What It Feels Like to Have PTSD
For many people, having PTSD makes them feel like they’re always on high alert. Everyday sounds and events that are background noise for most people—slamming car doors, the sound of footsteps behind them, someone calling out from another room—can bring feelings of intense fear and dread. Survival instincts kick in at unexpected times, and the individual may startle easy and lash out in anger without meaning to. They’re generally aware of their disproportionate responses to noises and movements, which often leads to feelings of guilt and frustration.
How PTSD Affects Everyday Life
A trademark symptom of PTSD is re-experiencing the traumatic event. Without warning, the individual may confront the emotions that they felt when the event took place, making them feel as though they’re facing it again. This may manifest as recurring flashbacks or nightmares. Certain smells, sounds or emotions may trigger flashbacks, or they may occur for no apparent reason. This is often frustrating for the individual and can make them feel powerless when unexpected triggers bring them back to a state where they feel an acute sense of danger.
PTSD can lead to physical effects that impact the individual’s health and quality of life. For example, they may always be in a heightened state of alertness with a fight-or-flight response that’s always ready to take over. Concentrating may be difficult, and they may have a hard time sleeping, either because they have difficulty quieting their minds or because they avoid sleep to prevent nightmares, leading to exhaustion.
Traumatic events can change the structure of the brain, increasing the amount of stress hormones produced. As a result, the individual may lose interest in activities that they once enjoyed and have negative thoughts about themselves or others. These changes can leave the individual feeling unable to shake sad or anxious moods or get enjoyment from previous hobbies.
Like most mental illnesses, PTSD can make the individual feel isolated and alone. They often feel as if those around them are out of touch with their internal struggles and unable to understand what they go through. Those who experience angry outbursts may alienate people who love them who, for their own mental health, have to maintain certain boundaries.
Facing a Crisis with PTSD
For someone with PTSD, certain crises can be particularly difficult to navigate, particularly if they share similarities with the previous trauma. The sense of dread that they feel may be intensified. For example, a woman who has PTSD after a stillbirth may have higher levels of fear or anxiety than a woman without a history of loss if they experience pregnancy complications.
Supporting a Loved One with PTSD
When someone’s friend, partner or family member has PTSD, the mental illness affects them, too. While they face different challenges than their loved one, those challenges are significant. Acknowledging those difficulties doesn’t diminish the trauma the survivor experienced but is an important part of setting boundaries and helping the individual recover.
Provide Social Support
It’s common for those with PTSD to withdraw from families and friends, either because they have a hard time connecting or they worry about alienating friends and families or becoming a burden. While it’s important that friends and family respect the individual’s boundaries, showing support and being available can help them overcome feelings of helplessness and isolation.
While trying to force someone with PTSD to talk about their experience with trauma is likely to cause more harm than good, friends and family should listen without judgment if the individual decides to share. They may need to rehash the experience over and over again. This is an important part of the healing process and shouldn’t be discouraged. There’s no need to offer advice; simply providing a listening ear is all that’s necessary.
Experiencing a traumatic event shifts a person’s perception of the world around them, causing them to constantly see danger and feel threatened. This takes a toll on how they see other people and shake their sense of security. Re-establishing trust by creating routines, keeping promises, minimizing stress and looking for ways to empower the individual can contribute to the healing process.
A trigger is anything that reminds the individual of the trauma they experienced. For example, a military veteran may be triggered by fireworks that sound like gunshots, while someone who experienced assault may be triggered by hearing certain songs or locations. While not all triggers can or even should be avoided, being aware and having a game plan for how to deal with them can put the individual in a better position to diffuse situations.
Have a Plan for Dealing with Outbursts
PTSD can lead to difficulties in managing emotions and responses, which may result in irritability, angry outbursts, and mood swings and have serious consequences on a person’s relationships. It may be helpful for friends and family to stay calm, ask how they can help if an outburst is triggered, and help their loved one find other ways to express their feelings. As always, it’s important to put safety first. If an individual feels threatened by their loved one’s behavior, they should remove themselves from the situation and alert authorities if they’re concerned that their loved one may hurt themselves or someone else.
Getting Professional Help for PTSD
While support and understanding are important for helping an individual with PTSD, it’s usually not enough. Most people with PTSD need help from mental healthcare professionals. Friends and family can support their loved one’s treatment by emphasizing its benefits, acknowledging therapy’s limitations and any inconveniences and accompanying them to support group meetings.
At FHE Health, we specialize in treating PTSD through a comprehensive mental health rehabilitation program. Clients receive one-on-one help from specially trained doctors, nurses, and psychologists and learn techniques that can foster healing.
PTSD is a serious condition, but with the right help, recovery is possible. If you or a loved one is living with PTSD, contact us today at (866) 809-8164 for more information about our treatment program.