Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety that occurs after someone experiences a traumatic event. While symptoms vary from person-to-person, the most common include flashbacks, nightmares, and alterations in cognition and mood. ¹ If you know someone in this position, you may be asking yourself “how to help someone with PTSD?”
Due to the complexity of this condition, this isn’t a simple question to answer. However, we’ve done our best to outline 7 ways you can support a loved one. We invite you to follow along and if you have further questions, you can ask them in the comments section below.
What It’s Like Living with PTSD
Living with someone with PTSD is never easy. However, as the condition worsens, you may find yourself losing more and more of your loved one.
Whether it’s a family member, friend, or significant other, PTSD can have detrimental affects on relationships. For example, you may find your loved one becoming more distanced, moody, and difficult to understand. Furthermore, PTSD may lead to social problems for your loved one, such as losing a job, financial difficulties, or substance abuse. ²
You may find yourself taking your loved one’s behavior personally. As though they aren’t listening to you or considering your advice. However, it’s important to understand that your loved one may not always be in control of their mental state.
PTSD and other anxiety disorders cause a person to always be alert and feel vulnerable wherever they go. Furthermore, these conditions may cause:
- Flashbacks of traumatic event
Still, with the right support system, your loved one can break these habits and be guided to the path of recovery.
How to Help Someone with PTSD
When trying to figure out how to help someone with PTSD, it can be difficult to know where to start. We’ve laid out 7 tips to give you a better idea of what you can do to support a loved one.
1.) Social Support
People with PTSD tend to avoid family and friends – especially when it comes to discussing their condition. Some feel ashamed of their symptoms, others don’t want to be a burden, and some simply don’t believe others will understand.
For these reasons, it’s important to show social support to a loved one with PTSD. In fact, some studies suggest that face-to-face interactions are a key factor in recovery. ³
While you don’t want to force things upon your loved one nor overstep their boundaries, there are ways in which you can show your support:
- Be patient
- Don’t pressure your loved one into talking
- Expect your loved one to have mixed feelings
- Help with everyday activities
- Let your loved one lead the conversation
- Research PTSD and its symptoms
- Take care of your own stress
Naturally, it may take you some time to adjust to these communication points. However, if you can, it’ll make a lot of difference in your loved one’s PTSD recovery.
2.) Listen to What They Have to Say
When someone with PTSD talks to you about their problems, it’s important to be a good listener – to listen without judgement or expectations. Along with listening, you should also avoid giving advice or relating their situation to your previous experiences.
When it comes to PTSD, a person is continuously battling with thoughts of a traumatic experience. In order to overcome the condition, they may need to relive that memory numerous times. It’s allows them to heal and understand that this experience is no longer a threat.
With that in mind, your willingness to listen can play a major role in recovery. If you’re a keen listener and don’t mind the repetition of the events being told, you’re helping your loved one reach the next step in overcoming their traumatic event.
Still, how you listen to your loved one is important. It’s vital to avoid:
- Appear disapproving, horrified, or judgmental about what you’re hearing
- Giving easy answers (i.e. everything is going to be okay)
- Interrupt your loved one from discussing their feelings
- Make threats or demands
- Minimize your loved one’s traumatic experience
- Place any blame on your loved one
- Telling your loved one what they should do
3.) Ensure Your Trust
One of the most difficult aspects of living with PTSD is a person’s trust. A traumatic experience can alter one’s perception of the world and make it feel like a dangerous and frightening place. ⁴ Furthermore, it can make them not trust themselves and those around them.
In order to combat these issues, it’s in your best interest to ensure trust within your loved one. While people will go about such a task in different ways, there are some key factors in maintaining trust:
- Create a schedule of times when you plan to see your loved one and activities you’ll do together (i.e. going grocery shopping
- If you live with a loved one, it can help to minimize stress at home as much as possible.
- In order to show your trustworthiness, be consistent in keeping your promises.
- Reassure your loved one that they’re capable of recovery and have the strength to succeed.
- Show that you’re committed to the relationship as well as your desire to support through long-term issues.
- Talk about future prospects and what your loved one plans for the coming years – this can help counteract the notion they may feel that the future is limited. ⁵
4.) Understand PTSD Triggers
People with PTSD are likely to experience triggers – people, places, objects, or situations that inflict PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks. ⁶ For example, if someone developed PTSD after a car accident in which a red car was involved, red cars may trigger symptoms.
Some things that might trigger PTSD include:
- Confining situations (i.e. waiting rooms, traffic)
- Conversations or news coverage of certain topics
- Family, relationships, school, work, or financial pressure
- Feelings for others (i.e. love, vulnerability, resentment)
- Hospitals, funerals, or other medical treatment facilities
- Important dates (i.e. the anniversary of the event)
- Natural occurrences (i.e. weather, seasons)
- People, locations, and things associated with the trauma
- Physical discomforts (i.e. hunger, fatigue, sickness)
- Powerful emotions (i.e. helplessness, trapped)
- Sensations of the body (i.e. pain, wounds, scars)
- Sights, sounds, and smells associated with the trauma
Beyond understanding PTSD triggers, it may be beneficial to talk to your loved one about their triggers. Everyone experiences different triggers and by being aware of your loved ones, you can help to lessen these triggers as much as possible.
5.) Prepare for Mood Swings and Anger
When it comes to processing and managing emotions, people with PTSD often have a difficult time. In response to this difficulty, they may react in rage, irritability, or moodiness.
Unfortunately, this can lead to further problems with their health, including: ⁷
- Feeling on edge
- Physically strung out
- Trouble sleeping
Some people with PTSD may use anger as a means of covering up other emotions, such as helplessness or guilt. The reason for this is anger provides people with a sense of power rather than vulnerability. ⁸
In order for your loved one to overcome these emotions, it may help if you:
- Ask what you can do to help
- Give your loved one personal space
- Keep an eye out for signs of anger (i.e. clenched fist, talking louder)
- Learn how to manage anger
- Remain calm in times of anger
6.) Follow Through with PTSD Treatment
While your love and support is important, it won’t be enough in helping your loved one overcome PTSD. In order to recover from this condition, it’s key for your loved one to receive professional medical treatment. This usually involves two process:
- Medication – Either SSRIs or SNRIs, such as Sertraline (Zoloft) and Fluoxetine (Prozac). ⁹
- Trauma-Focused Therapies – Such as prolonged exposure (PE) therapy, cognitive processing therapy (CPT), or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). ¹⁰
Of course, not everyone with PTSD is keen on treatment. You may find it difficult to get its importance through to your loved one. If so, there are some things you can do:
- Focus on specific problems
- Highlight the benefits of PTSD treatment
- Motivate your loved one to join a support group
- Recognize the limitations of medication and therapy
- Try to get help from others your loved one trusts
7.) Support Yourself in the Process
While it’s important for you to take care of your loved one, it’s also vital you care for yourself in the process. Overhelping your loved one may lead you to feel burnt out or at a loss of control. In fact, you may even develop your own trauma just from hearing about your loved one’s experience. ¹¹
In order to maintain your own strength while helping a loved one, you should:
- Develop your own support system
- Have others help with your loved one
- Make sure your physical and mental health is stable
- Set boundaries with your loved one
- Take time off for yourself
Where to Find PTSD Support
If you’re looking for other options of support for your loved one, help is available!
For those caring for a U.S. military veteran and are in need of financial and caregiving support:
- Visit VA Caregiver Support or call Coaching into Care at (888) 823-7458
- Call Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255
- A Guide to VA Mental Health Services for Veterans & Families
For helplines and support in the U.S. and other countries, you can reach out to:
- Family Members and Caregivers
- Help for Families (Canada only)
- Friends and Family (UK only)
- Helping Others (Australia only)
- Family and Caregiver Support (Australia only)
If your loved one is struggling with suicidal ideation, you can reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. If your loved one is in IMMEDIATE RISK of suicide, it’s vital to call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room as soon as possible.
While it can be difficult for you to care for a loved one with PTSD, your help may make all the difference. When someone with PTSD has someone their to support and care for them, it makes the recovery process easier and even more fulfilling.
We highly recommend furthering your research on PTSD to get an idea of how this condition is affecting your loved one and how you can help. Being as this is such a complex mental disorder, there are likely other factors at play that weren’t mentioned within this article.
Still have concerns about how to help someone with PTSD?
We invite you to ask questions in the comments section below. If you have any further knowledge – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
² Depression and Anxiety (Wiley): Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population
³ Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Publishers: Assessment of the Therapeutic Alliance in Face-to-Face or Videoconference Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
⁴ frontiers in Psychiatry: Association Between Trust and Mental, Social, and Physical Health Outcomes in Veterans and Active Duty Service Members With Combat-Related PTSD Symptomatology
⁵ frontiers in Psychology: What is a “sense of foreshortened future?” A phenomenological study of trauma, trust, and time
⁶ U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Trauma Reminders: Triggers
⁷ World Psychiatry: The long-term costs of traumatic stress: intertwined physical and psychological consequences
⁸ frontiers in Psychology: Anger as a Basic Emotion and Its Role in Personality Building and Pathological Growth: The Neuroscientific, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives
⁹ U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Medications for PTSD
¹⁰ U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD Treatment Basics
¹¹ Office for Victims of Crime: What is Vicarious Trauma?