Tips for Helping Someone with PTSD
1: Provide social support
It’s common for people with PTSD to withdraw from family and friends. They may feel ashamed, not want to burden others, or believe that other people won’t understand what they’re going through. While it’s important to respect your loved one’s boundaries, your comfort and support can help them overcome feelings of helplessness, grief, and despair. In fact, trauma experts believe that face-to-face support from others is the most important factor in PTSD recovery.
Knowing how to best demonstrate your love and support for someone with PTSD isn’t always easy. You can’t force your loved one to get better, but you can play a major role in the healing process by simply spending time together.
Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It can be very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make them feel worse. Instead, let them know you’re willing to listen when they want to talk, or just hang out when they don’t. Comfort for someone with PTSD comes from feeling engaged and accepted by you, not necessarily from talking.
Do “normal” things with your loved one, things that have nothing to do with PTSD or the traumatic experience. Encourage your loved one to seek out friends, pursue hobbies that bring them pleasure, and participate in rhythmic exercise such as walking, running, swimming, or rock climbing. Take a fitness class together, go dancing, or set a regular lunch date with friends and family.
Let your loved one take the lead, rather than telling them what to do. Everyone with PTSD is different but most people instinctively know what makes them feel calm and safe. Take cues from your loved one as to how you can best provide support and companionship.
Manage your own stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one.
Be patient. Recovery is a process that takes time and often involves setbacks. The important thing is to stay positive and maintain support for your loved one.
Educate yourself about PTSD. The more you know about the symptoms, effects, and treatment options, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one, understand what they are going through, and keep things in perspective.
Accept (and expect) mixed feelings. As you go through the emotional wringer, be prepared for a complicated mix of feelings—some of which you’ll never want to admit. Just remember, having negative feelings toward your family member doesn’t mean you don’t love them.
Tip 2: Be a good listener
While you shouldn’t push a person with PTSD to talk, if they do choose to share, try to listen without expectations or judgments. Make it clear that you’re interested and that you care, but don’t worry about giving advice. It’s the act of listening attentively that is helpful to your loved one, not what you say.
A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on. Instead, offer to talk as many times as they need.
Some of the things your loved one tells you might be very hard to listen to. It’s okay to dislike what you hear, but it’s important to respect their feelings and reactions. If you come across as disapproving, horrified, or judgmental, they are unlikely to open up to you again.
Communication pitfalls to avoid
Give easy answers or blithely tell your loved one everything is going to be okay.
Stop your loved one from talking about their feelings or fears.
Offer unsolicited advice or tell your loved one what they “should” do.
Blame all of your relationship or family problems on your loved one’s PTSD.
Invalidate, minimize, or deny your loved one’s traumatic experience
Give ultimatums or make threats or demands.
Make your loved one feel weak because they aren’t coping as well as others.
Tell your loved one they were lucky it wasn’t worse.
Take over with your own personal experiences or feelings.
Tip 3: Rebuild trust and safety
Trauma alters the way a person sees the world, making it seem like a perpetually dangerous and frightening place. It also damages people’s ability to trust others and themselves. If there’s any way you can rebuild your loved one’s sense of security, it will contribute to their recovery.
Express your commitment to the relationship. Let your loved one know that you’re here for the long haul so they feel loved and supported.
Create routines. Structure and predictable schedules can restore a sense of stability and security to people with PTSD, both adults and children. Creating routines could involve getting your loved one to help with groceries or housework, for example, maintaining regular times for meals, or simply “being there” for the person.
Minimize stress at home. Try to make sure your loved one has space and time for rest and relaxation.
Speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among people with PTSD that their future is limited.
Keep your promises. Help rebuild trust by showing that you’re trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on what you say you’re going to do.
Emphasize your loved one’s strengths. Tell your loved one you believe they’re capable of recovery and point out all of their positive qualities and successes.
Look for ways to empower your loved one. Rather than doing things for them that they’re capable of doing for themselves, it’s better to build their confidence and self-trust by giving them more choices and control.
Tip 4: Anticipate and manage triggers
A trigger is anything—a person, place, thing, or situation—that reminds your loved one of the trauma and sets off a PTSD symptom, such as a flashback. Sometimes, triggers are obvious. For example, a military veteran might be triggered by seeing his combat buddies or by the loud noises that sound like gunfire. Others may take some time to identify and understand, such as hearing a song that was playing when the traumatic event happened, for example, so now that song or even others in the same musical genre are triggers. Similarly, triggers don’t have to be external. Internal feelings and sensations can also trigger PTSD symptoms.
Common external PTSD triggers
Sights, sounds, or smells associated with the trauma.
People, locations, or things that recall the trauma.
Significant dates or times, such as anniversaries or a specific time of day.
Nature (certain types of weather, seasons, etc.).
Conversations or media coverage about trauma or negative news events.
Situations that feel confining (stuck in traffic, at the doctor’s office, in a crowd).
Relationship, family, school, work, or money pressures or arguments.
Funerals, hospitals, or medical treatment.
Common internal PTSD triggers
Physical discomfort, such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, sickness, and sexual frustration.
Any bodily sensation that recalls the trauma, including pain, old wounds and scars, or a similar injury.
Strong emotions, especially feeling helpless, out of control, or trapped.
Feelings toward family members, including mixed feelings of love, vulnerability, and resentment.
Talking to your loved one about PTSD triggers
Ask your loved one about things they’ve done in the past to respond to a trigger that seemed to help (as well as the things that didn’t). Then come up with a joint game plan for how you will respond in future.
Decide with your loved one how you should respond when they have a nightmare, flashback, or panic attack. Having a plan in place will make the situation less scary for both of you. You’ll also be in a much better position to help your loved one calm down.