How to Support a Loved One With PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an intrusive and undermining mental health condition that develops after someone witnesses or experiences an upsetting traumatic event. It can affect people who’ve been involved in combat, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or an abusive relationship. It can also emerge following a serious accident or a sexual assault.

PTSD is a widespread problem that affects people of all ages and backgrounds. In the United States, an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lives. If someone you love has PTSD, that simple statistic can become highly personal.

It’s normal to feel unsure about how to support a loved one with PTSD, especially when they’re withdrawn, upset, or in crisis. But unwavering support from family and friends can be pivotal for people who are struggling with PTSD, and there’s a lot you can do to help. 

With that in mind, here are some useful strategies from our mental health specialists at EXIS Recovery Inc. in West Los Angeles.

First, educate yourself about PTSD

It’s easier to offer the kind of support that someone with PTSD truly needs when you have a clear understanding of what the condition is and the various ways it can affect the person who lives with it every day.

PTSD is often misunderstood or even stigmatized, so it’s essential to recognize the symptoms it can cause — including the subtle ones — and be aware of the emotional experience that can come with them. 

Besides helping you be more empathetic, learning about PTSD can clear up any misconceptions you may unwittingly have about the condition, too.

Be steady, reliable, and trustworthy

People with PTSD are more likely to isolate themselves out of anxiety or fear of judgement. Unfortunately, living with a sense of isolation often makes PTSD symptoms and worse.

Let your loved one know that you’re available and you want to hear how they’re feeling, but that you also understand if they don’t feel like talking. Never pressure your loved one to share when they don’t feel like it. Pushing them to open up when they aren’t ready can leave them feeling anxious or even make them feel like they’re reliving their trauma.

Reassure them that you’ll be there if and when they’re ready to talk. Most importantly, practice being a steady, reliable, and trustworthy presence in their life so they have no reservations about turning to you when they’re ready.

Create a safe space and listen well

It can be hard for people with PTSD to open up about their feelings or experiences, even with someone they love. This is especially true when they’re opening up about their trauma. That’s why, when your loved one does want to talk, it’s critical to be a good listener.

Your loved one may tell you things that are difficult to hear, and they may not share everything. While it can be tempting to “fill the empty spaces” with reassurances, personal experiences, or advice, it’s important to listen without interruption, judgment, or “words of wisdom.” 

It’s important to avoid minimizing their feelings or experiences by pointing out the obvious, like the fact that they survived their trauma. It’s also important to steer clear of cliches like “it could have been worse.”

Instead, show your loved one that you’re actively listening in an engaged and supportive way by making eye contact, repeating back what they’ve told you when appropriate, and asking open-ended questions like, “How do you feel?” or “What can I do to help?” 

Develop a crisis plan — together

PTSD can give rise to feelings of numbness and detachment, but it can also prompt intensely negative feelings and emotions, ranging from fear and anxiety to anger and irritability. These reactive symptoms are often set off by personal triggers that serve as instant reminders of the trauma. 

While you can’t always prevent a crisis, you can learn to recognize your loved one’s triggers and take steps to help them cope in the moment. This is most important if you live together. 

Have a conversation about what you can do to help during a nightmare, flashback, panic attack, or anger episode. For example, you can agree to set up a time-out system when anger is boiling over — either one of you can call for a 15-minute time out using a hand signal or safe word. After your mutual “pause and reset,” you can come back together and move forward. 

If you’d like to learn other ways you can encourage and support your loved one, we can help. Call 424-244-3513 to reach our West Los Angeles office today, or use the easy online booking tool to schedule a visit with one of our experienced mental health experts any time.

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