Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects approximately 3.5% of adults in the United States, or an estimated 7.7 million adults.
The American Psychiatric Association estimates that approximately one out of every 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime, and even more people will be affected by it.
PTSD is difficult for the sufferer to live with and experience, but it can also be challenging for the person’s loved ones, who desperately want to help but may not know how. If you’re wondering how to help someone with PTSD, read on for support tips and more.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health disorder that affects people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.
PTSD can occur after any event that a person feels is traumatic. Some examples of traumatic events that may trigger the onset of PTSD include natural disasters, terrorist acts, rape, serious accidents, war or combat, death, sexual violence, or serious injury.
Although some people believe that PTSD is a recent phenomenon, the condition has been known by many different names throughout the years, including “shell shock” during the years surrounding World War I, and “combat fatigue” during the years surrounding World War II.
However, PTSD does not just affect combat veterans. Women are twice as likely to experience PTSD than men, and Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans are more likely to experience PTSD than non-Latino whites.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD is characterized by overwhelming and disturbing thoughts and feelings about the traumatic event that the person experienced. Although it is normal for these thoughts and feelings to occur immediately after the event, PTSD can begin months or years after the event has occurred. The event is often relived through intense flashbacks or nightmares that cause feelings of anger, fear, sadness, or distress.
Symptoms associated with PTSD fall into four categories: intrusion, avoidance, alterations in cognition and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity.
Every person with PTSD experiences the condition differently, so some people might experience many symptoms from one category and few or none from another.
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must experience symptoms for at least one month and the symptoms must interfere with the person’s daily life or cause significant emotional distress.
Symptoms in the intrusion category include things like involuntary and repeated memories of the event, nightmares, or flashbacks of the event. Some people with PTSD have flashbacks that are so vivid that it feels like they are reliving the event all over again.
Avoidance symptoms serve to protect the person from experiencing reminders of the traumatic event that may trigger flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. People may avoid places, objects, people, activities, and situations that can cause these feelings to resurface. Avoidance symptoms can also include avoiding thinking or talking about the event, as well as feelings associated with the event.
Alterations in Cognition and Mood
Some people with PTSD find that they are unable to recall important elements or details of the event. Others may experience negative thoughts and feelings associated with their role in the event that can lead to ongoing beliefs and feelings that influence their self esteem and the way they feel about others. These feelings can include persistent fear, anger, shame, guilt, or horror and can cause people to believe that they are to blame for the event occurring. Others become estranged from people and activities that they once enjoyed and find it difficult to experience positive emotions, such as happiness.
Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity
People with PTSD may struggle with becoming more reactive than they would have prior to the traumatic event. It is common for people with PTSD to experience angry outbursts, become highly irritable, behave recklessly, indulge in self-destructive behaviors, become easily startled, become highly watchful of their surroundings, and have difficulty concentrating or falling asleep.
How to Help Someone with PTSD
Loving someone with PTSD can make you feel helpless at times. It is common for people with PTSD to distance themselves from family and friends, which can make it even more difficult to help them. Often, this distance is rooted in fears that they are a burden to others or that other people won’t understand their feelings.
It is important to respect the boundaries of someone with PTSD, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t help them and offer support along the way. Face to face support and comfort is considered the most important factor in PTSD recovery.
Here are a few ways that you can help someone with PTSD.
- Be patient: People with PTSD won’t heal overnight. Expect that there will be progress and setbacks along the way, and that this is normal. Stay positive and maintain an attitude of support and acceptance.
- Don’t pressure them: While it can be tempting to think that forcing someone with PTSD to talk about their feelings would help them process their trauma, some people feel worse when discussing their traumatic experiences. Offer a listening ear if they feel like talking, but hang out like normal and treat them with acceptance if they don’t.
- Accept boundaries: Rather than trying to manage your loved one’s recovery, allow them to take the lead in setting the boundaries on what makes them feel comfortable and safe. Every person is different.
- Accept your own mixed feelings: Dealing with PTSD in a loved one can take its toll on anyone. It’s normal to feel frustrated, hurt, disappointed, or even angry in the process. Just because you have mixed feelings doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person or you don’t care about your loved one.
- Be a good listener: While some people with PTSD don’t want to discuss the event or their feelings about it, others will want to rehash the event and their feelings again and again. If your loved one processes their trauma in this way, offer to talk about the situation as often as they need to in order to help them feel supported. Try to remain neutral during the discussions, as you may feel worried or disapprove of some of the things you hear. If your loved one feels judged by your reaction, they may be unwilling to talk to you about their trauma again.
- Help build trust: People suffering from PTSD can feel like they are constantly in danger, which is a scary place to be and can erode the trust they used to feel in themselves and other people. Help build trust by outwardly expressing your commitment to your loved one, making plans for the future, and keeping your promises. This improves your loved one’s sense of security in their relationship with you and lets them know that you are a person that can be trusted.
- Minimize stress: Help reduce stress at home whenever possible by giving your loved one space and time to rest and relax. Create and establish a predictable routine or schedule that will make your loved one feel more secure and will help mitigate their fears about what is to come.
- Help manage PTSD triggers: One of the most helpful ways to support your loved one with PTSD is by understanding, anticipating, and helping them manage their triggers. Triggers can be external, such as smells, sights, or sounds associated with the traumatic event, visiting the location of the trauma; significant dates; situations that feel confining, or conversations about the event. They can also be internal and can include feelings of physical discomfort associated with the trauma, strong emotions, or feelings toward loved ones. Help to manage these triggers by understanding what they are, and then talk to your loved one about how you can help them work through the triggers in the future.
- Manage volatility: If your loved one is having an outburst of anger, try and stay calm and give them space. Ask how you can help, but if you feel your safety is in jeopardy, put your safety first. Take steps to diffuse the situation if you see your loved one starting to become angry or irritable.
Finally, while your support is important, recognize that many people with PTSD need the help of a mental health professional, medication, or both to overcome their symptoms and trauma.
The best way to support someone with PTSD is to support them face to face and help them work through their feelings in their own time and in their own way.
If your loved one is willing to consider professional help, online mental health services like YANA can connect people suffering from PTSD to an expertly trained doctor from the comfort of their own home at an affordable cost.
There is hope and help available for people with PTSD and their families, and while the most important step is working to understand your loved one’s specific PTSD, the second most important step is getting help managing it.