Living with PTSD is extremely challenging, not just for the person who has PTSD but also for those who care about them. The person with PTSD can find it very frustrating when well-intended “help” is more harmful than helpful. At the same time, it can be upsetting to have well-intended attempts to be helpful and supportive rejected without appreciation and even with anger. The friend or family member really want to be helpful, they just don’t know what to do. And the person with PTSD doesn’t know how to ask for what they need (or maybe even don’t know what will help). Here are six things a person can do to help someone who is struggling with PTSD.
1. Learn more about PTSD. Take a bit of time to learn about what PTSD is (this blog post spell out the symptoms of PTSD and this blog explains flashbacks) and what impact PTSD has on their life. Often PTSD is accompanied by depression, poor sleep, a quick temper, and anxiety. If you know what additional symptoms your loved one is experiencing, it can be helpful to learn more about those issues too.
2. Have THE TALK. Once you know more about PTSD, the best way to figure out how to help your person is to have a discussion. Don’t ask about what happened, ask about how you can help them with their struggles now. Here’s some stuff to discuss:
- Symptom alleviation. Start with the stuff you are sure their struggling with: “When you’re (insert symptom – angry, sad, overwhelmed, etc.), what helps you become less (insert symptom)? How can I help with this?” Make sure you ask about anything you may have missed and how to help with that.
- Triggers. Find out what makes the PTSD “wake-up”. PTSD symptoms can become worse because of something around or within the individual that sets it off. These triggers can be a sound, smell, an individual, an anniversary related to the cause of the PTSD, or just about anything else. Discuss how to help them limit or manage their triggers.
- Flashbacks. Learn about how (or if) they experience flashbacks and how they get out of them. If they are still struggling to be more successful managing their flashbacks, this blog provides some basic tools for managing flashbacks. it can be helpful to learn and practice the skills with them, but not everyone will want an accountability buddy, proceed with respect to what is helpful for them. Learn what works for them and learn those skills.
3. Listen. When they want to talk, listen. Don’t offer solutions. Don’t point out that it’s over or that their lucky. Just listen. Here are some tips to listen effectively:
- Show you’re paying attention. Use your body posture and position to make it clear you’re listening. Lean in, turn towards, and look at (but not so intently that you make them uncomfortable) them while they talk.
- Reflect. Tell them (don’t ask) what they are feeling. How would you feel if that happened to you? If you think you know, tell it like a fact. Hearing “that was scary” is more validating then “were you scared”. If you’re wrong, they’ll correct you and often being wrong will deepen the conversation.
- Use your face and nonverbals. Hmm’s and ooh’s and ahha’s are great non-word sounds to share feelings or encourage more talking. Let your facial expression convey your sadness, upset and most other emotions the story elicits. These stories can be disgusting and upsetting; you need to be prepared for this. Sharing your disgust, horror, or judgment can abruptly shut down sharing.
- Limit questions. Only ask questions when you must. If you can follow the general gist of what they’re saying or feeling let the missed details go. If they’re mumbling or speaking to quietly and have lost the storyline the ask them to clarify.
4. Do normal. People struggling with PTSD often withdraw from family, friends, and life. Go, spend time with them. Encourage them to get out and do stuff. Old activities which may be triggering should be avoided but quieter smaller activities (hiking, fishing, yoga, disc golf, or such) may be manageable. Just spending time with them at home, watching TV or playing video games, can be helpful.
5. Be flexible. What works one day, may not another. What they think they are up to in the morning may be too much by evening. PTSD is a fickle disease: It can flare and trigger for seemingly no reason and other days it can be quiet and less intrusive. Becoming skilled at adjusting to the situation as it evolves can be a very useful skill to master.
6. Take care of yourself. Your ability to be supportive and helpful for someone with PTSD depends on your ability to be present, patient and stable. If you become worn out you will not be able to be as helpful. Make sure you have support from friends and/or family. Take your own relaxation time and do things that rejuvenate you. Don’t tolerate abuse. PTSD often comes out as anger, that’s very normal. That does not mean you tolerate abuse or violence. Understand the outburst but don’t put up with mean or hateful verbal attacks.
Create an environment where the person with PTSD and the supportive friend/family member can feel safe enough to ask for what they need or admit when they’re struggling is an important part of successfully supporting and helping someone with PTSD. This can be a fragile and slow process that can be both frustrating and deeply rewarding. These tools can help make helping more successful. I would love to know what you find most helpful from your best supportive friend or family member.
I am a therapist in Austin Texas. I specialize in helping adults heal from difficult childhoods, childhood trauma, CSA (Childhood Sexual Abuse), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and cPTSD (complex PTSD). If you have a friend or loved one who is struggling with PTSD they could benefit from working with a skilled trauma therapist. If they live in the Austin Texas area I would love to meet with them for a free 30 minute consultation about how I can help them heal the root causes of their PTSD. Complete the contact form or call (512)710-7388 to schedule that free consultation.