Does Your Loved One Have PTSD? 9 Things You Can Do to Help Them Out
There’s nothing more terrifying than realizing someone you love is experiencing something you can’t fix. Our compassion compels us to do everything we can to remove pain and solve issues that are plaguing those we love. However, when it comes to mental illness, we’re limited in what we can do to help. It can often feel like, despite our best efforts, nothing we do matters.
You might be here because someone you care about has told you that they suffer from PTSD. Or you might be here because you suspect someone in your life is dealing with this disorder and you don’t know how to help them. Maybe you understand what they’re going through, and maybe you have no idea what is happening. Whatever it is, you want to help them in any way possible.
As someone who has been learning to manage PTSD for the past three years, and has educated people around them about the disorder, I’ve fine tuned a system of what works and what doesn’t. Below are the steps that work best.
Understand Their Disorder
The first step to supporting anyone with mental illness is understanding how their disorder impacts their life. Education is the best tool for understanding how PTSD affects your loved one.The US Department for Veterans Affairs and the National Institute For Mental Health both have amazing resources on PTSD, and are great places to start your education.
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder; it is a mental illness that develops after someone experiences a traumatic event. This can include war, car accidents, natural disasters, and different kinds of abuse.
There are two different major types of PTSD. The first results from a single instance of trauma and those developed from a history of trauma. The latter is also known as cPTSD or complex PTSD. Each type can manifest somewhat differently, and not everyone will experience the same symptoms.
However, here are some symptoms someone with PTSD might experience:
-Repeatedly reliving a traumatic experience
-Negative self esteem
-Having difficulty feeling positive emotions
-Constantly on alert
-Having difficulty sleeping
-Having difficulty concentrating
Get Familiar With Common Terminology
There are a lot of words you might not be familiar with that will likely come up when talking about PTSD. Here are some of the common ones.
Flashback: Re-experiencing some or all of a traumatic event. Often, the brain experiences this as if it is currently happening.
Night Terror: Like nightmares, but on steroids. These usually involve some aspect of the traumatic event and can cause sufferers to be violent in their sleep.
Trigger: An environmental factor that reminds the sufferer of a traumatic event, and often causes flashbacks
Avoidance: A behavior the sufferer manifests in which they do everything they can to get away or stay away from factors and situations that may remind them of their trauma.
On Edge: Anxious, tense feeling that many sufferers give off. Being on alert or on edge is the brain’s way of preparing for potential trauma to happen in the future.
If your loved one uses other words that you don’t understand, ask them what they mean by those words. Sometimes, people will use the same word for something different. Knowing what they are referring to with each phrase can help support clear communication.
Understand How the Disorder Manifests for Them
While there are commonalities in the ways PTSD manifests, it can also differ with each person. For me, PTSD looks different depending on if I am having an episode or not. While flashbacks are very difficult to deal with, they aren’t the only part of the disorder. When I am having an episode, I stop responding. Sometimes my eyes are open and sometimes they are closed. But if someone is talking to me, I can’t hear them at all. My brain doesn’t register their presence.
Other ways PTSD manifests for me include night terrors, difficulty trusting people, and incredibly poor self image. I’ll also do what I call pattern matching. If something is even a little bit like a situation where I experienced trauma, I will believe that trauma will repeat itself, and then believe I am not safe.
While the person you are worried about might not know what episodes look like, they will probably have some idea of the symptoms that commonly manifest for them. It can help to take notes on the symptoms they list and on any potential solutions they offer. The first few times they experience an episode, it can be scary and you might forget what to do. Having a written reference sheet can help you take action when you might otherwise freeze up
Be Patient With Them
PTSD is incredibly frustrating. I don’t want to fall down the poor mental health spirals my disorder can pull me into, but sometimes I don’t have a choice. If someone tells me something contrary to what my disorder believes, I have to hear it several times before I start to realize what the person is saying. I know that it was frustrating to those around me when it appeared like I didn’t care. But I was in a position where I truly could not hear what they were saying. I was in survival mode. I wasn’t trying to be obstinate, my brain just could not accept that I was safe..
Those closest to me have had to tell me repeatedly that I am safe, that nothing bad will happen to me, and that I can trust others in my life. Sometimes they have gotten frustrated, because they have felt like what they are doing had no effect. My brain tells me negative things over and over again, sometimes several times a day. I have to be told the opposite just as many times before I am able to hear it.
In order to recover, people with PTSD are literally rewiring their brains. Especially at first, improvement may be slow. Be patient. With time and effort, it will happen.
Don’t Take Their Disorder Personally
It’s very common for people with PTSD to have a hard time trusting others. This isn’t because of anything you have done. Their brain is constantly telling them that anyone could cause harm to them and that they have to be on high alert in case something bad happens. Sometimes those with PTSD will outright avoid making friends so that they don’t have to risk trusting someone.
Lack of trust can make relationships tense. However, in this situation, their lack of trust comes from an enlarged amygdala. The amygdala is the fear center of the brain, and is responsible for causing us to feel afraid if a large predator is coming our way. People with PTSD have an over active fear center that causes them to feel afraid for a large majority of the time.
Imagine you are constantly on the run from a man eating mountain lion. At first, your adrenaline helps you keep going, and pushes you to keep running. But before too long, you begin to tire. Your body starts to fatigue, and you aren’t able to keep going. The mountain lion is going to eat you.
Except there isn’t a mountain lion.
You know you can hear it, you swear you saw it. So you rest just enough for you to be able to keep running. And running. And running.
People who have PTSD live like this, except the mountain lion is in their mind. They have to keep mentally running away, to the point of exhaustion. This doesn’t leave room for anything else.
Learn How to Identify Flashbacks
Usually, it’s pretty clear when a flashback starts. I feel like there’s a night and day difference. At one moment, I’m normal and interacting with the world around me. In the next moment, I’m in a completely different place and I have no control over what is happening to me. I stop responding to people around me, because I literally cannot tell that they are there.
My partner has told me that I sometimes cry or hyperventilate when I’m having a flashback. I don’t respond to what he’s doing for a while. My eyes glaze over and my body gets rigid. He has learned that when I stop responding, I’m having a flashback.
The exact way your loved one will act when having a flashback might differ, but here are some common symptoms to look out for:
-Curling up or making yourself small
-Lack of movement
-Screaming or frightened sounds
Figure Out What Helps Them Get and Stay Grounded During Attacks
A flashback makes someone believe that they are literally in a different time and space. Their body is physically with you, but their mind does not believe it.
One of the best things you can do is work to ground them. Grounding is a process of interacting with their physical senses in a way that brings the mind to the present.
The most effective grounding techniques will differ from person to person. Sometimes it can help them to be touched, while other times that can worsen what they are going through. Here are some solutions that might work, but make sure you ask them before you try any out.
-Tell them they are safe
-Tell them details about the area where they are
-Bring a tactile sensation into their environment. Dog fur helps me, but textures that are very distinct can be helpful.
Talk About It With Them
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do for someone going through PTSD is to talk to them. They might not completely understand what they are going through, but talking can be incredibly helpful. They also might have some ideas they want to test out.
You need to be willing to talk to them over a period of time, too. This isn’t something that you can talk about once and be done with. Healing from and learning to live with a mental disorder takes time. It’s not something you’ll be able to fix right away. But, if the both of you are dedicated to making it work, you will get to a better place.
If they aren’t already seeing someone, encourage them to seek out professional help. One of the best things I did for my PTSD was go and see someone who specializes in treating trauma. While CBT and traditional talk therapy can be helpful, trauma induced behaviors can’t always be talked out. There are specific techniques that can help desensitize and reprocess traumatic events in beneficial way.
I know this seems like a lot of information. However, this isn’t something that is meant to be dealt with right away. It’ll take time and effort to worth through this. Some days, it will feel impossible. It will feel like nothing you’re doing is making any difference. I would encourage you to keep going, especially on the days when it feels pointless. I got better because the people in my life didn’t give up on me, even when I felt like they should. Your loved one will be so much better through your support.