8 out of 100 Americans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for PTSD.
If you have a loved one who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s hard to know how to help them. At times, it seems downright frustrating. Sometimes they tell you how much they appreciate you, but other times they get so angry with you that they fly into a rage.
What should you do?
Here are the do’s and don’ts to helping someone with PTSD:
Do watch for warning signs
The first step to helping someone with PTSD is to understand what it looks like. It has been described as a grief interrupted or suspended in order to handle a crisis. When a terrifying event occurs that’s too much for your brain to process, it can literally short circuit your mind.
Whether they’re a soldier who has been in combat or the victim of a robbery at gunpoint, someone who has PTSD may not show symptoms of it until they’re out of danger.
Here are a few signs of PTSD:
- Depression or anxiety
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Repetitive nightmares or flashbacks
- Easily startled
- Inability to trust
- Guilt and shame
- Deliberate self-harm
Don’t try to “fix” them
While it’s good to be a companion to someone who struggles with PTSD, make sure you’re not trying to “fix” them. What’s the difference? Being a companion is about being present—to observe and honor someone else’s pain. You do this by listening to their stories, being attentive, asking questions, and making them feel safe. The bottom line is this: You don’t have to fix it. But you do need to be available to them.
If you try to solve their problems for them, it’ll make things worse. So, don’t push someone into talking; they should be the one to talk about it first. When they do open up, listen without judgement or offering any advice and encourage them to see a licensed therapist who has specialized training in PTSD. A therapist can help them to work through their traumatic experiences, as well as give them tools to help them deal with their triggers.
Do create a safe place
When someone has PTSD, they see the world as a dangerous place. Help them feel safe by creating a safe environment within your home or theirs. This can be a comfortable corner where they can sit in a rocking chair, curl up with a cozy blanket, light a candle, smell a calming scent, or look out the window.
Help them see you as a compassionate, safe person. So when they do open up to you, don’t say insensitive comments such as:
- Why don’t you just get over it!
- What you went through was not that bad!
- God won’t give you more than you can handle.
- Suck it up and move on!
- You’re strong, so you’ll be fine.
Instead, say something reassuring like, “It must have been very difficult for you to have gone through that. I hear the pain in your voice, and I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Help them feel safe in their relationship with you by letting them know you’re committed to them no matter what. Make sure you follow through by being be dependable and trustworthy.
Don’t neglect yourself
If you’re going to help your loved one in their struggle with PTSD, you’ve got to make sure your needs are met. How do you take care of your own needs? Some people are so stressed that they need to take time off to get away to be by themselves for a week or longer. While others can simply take short relaxing breaks by watching a movie, exercising, reading the Bible, or going out to eat with a friend.
But no matter how you decompress, make sure you develop a good support system. This means going to a Life Recovery Group where you’ll have a safe place to share your struggles. Also, find a licensed counselor you can see who’s trained in PTSD. Seeing a therapist will empower you to set boundaries and give your loved one the support they need.
Is it difficult to have a good relationship with a close friend or family member who has PTSD? Yes! Is it impossible? No! As you continue to reach out to them with love and compassion—not trying to change them—make sure you take care of yourself.
Let’s say you’re in an airplane that loses cabin pressure. You would put on your oxygen mask first before helping someone else put on theirs. Likewise, if you’re helping someone with PTSD, make sure you’re able to breathe yourself.
As long as you’re able to breathe and take care of yourself, you’ll be able to assist someone with PTSD.
Want to know more about how to help someone who struggles with PTSD? Read Understanding and Loving a Person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, by Steve Arterburn and Becky Johnson.