How To Support A Loved One With PTSD — From Someone Who Has It
This story is part of The Establishment’s series on PTSD Awareness.
I was on vacation the first time it happened.
I don’t remember too many of the details, except that we were in a hotel parking lot and I couldn’t have been more than 24 or 25.
I do, however, remember every facet of that moment, down to the feeling of the cool summer air at dusk. I was standing next to my family’s car, waiting for my mom to gather all our luggage, when I spotted him walking toward us. Although he was several feet away, something about him made my heart sink. The way he walked, his build, even the way he was dressed. In a split second, it all took me back, like my life was flashing before my eyes. My breathing sped up, my heart raced.
As he walked closer to us, my physical symptoms reached a fever pitch — and then everything clicked.
It was my father.
Only it wasn’t; my father had died a few years before. This man? He was a complete stranger. But he’d not only reminded me of my father, but, for a second, seemingly also became him. As my senses returned, overwhelming pain sunk in. My father was gone, so seeing someone who looked like him, but wasn’t actually him, felt like a cruel joke in which I was the punchline.
The joke wouldn’t let me go, either. I couldn’t shake off the anxiety of seeing his face; it stuck in my mind long after we’d left the parking lot. I’d never experienced anything like this before, and my anxiety continued to spiral.
This was my first experience with post-traumatic stress disorder, and it certainly has not been my last. My father committed suicide in 2003 following a short battle with sinus cancer, and I began wrestling with symptoms of PTSD in the years following his death.
I’d started seeing a psychiatrist and therapist shortly after his passing to help manage my anxiety and grief. But then the anxiety grew even more acute — with the power to transport me back to the most traumatic experience of my life, no matter how much time had passed. Especially in the direct wake of my father’s passing, when my grief was its most raw and jagged, anything seemed to set me off. The vivid scenes of the hours and days after my father’s death would replay on a loop in my head. Over and over. It was like a nightmarish home movie that I couldn’t turn off.
I would learn that these types of PTSD responses are common among those who’ve lost a loved one to suicide. I was suffering from what is known as complicated grief, the type of grief that occurs after “an unexpected or violent death, such as death from a car accident, or the murder or suicide of a loved one.” PTSD and complicated grief often go hand-in-painful-hand.
When my post-traumatic stress symptoms began, I felt helpless and totally out of control for the first time in my life. Until I learned about the disorder, I had no idea what was happening to me, which only intensified my grief and anxiety. Thankfully, I’ve seen some shifts in the public’s perception of mental illness and PTSD in recent years, and this move toward understanding symptoms and treatment — and away from stigma — has benefited sufferers.
Still, it’s been a battle. In addition to seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants, I’ve been in therapy for the last decade. This has been life-changing in helping me confront my feelings and issues surrounding my father’s suicide. But although I’ve come a long way, I know PTSD is something I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life.
And unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, helping someone with the disorder can feel like trying to navigate a minefield without a map — especially given our society’s tendency to push people to “just get over it,” which can make those suffering feel the need to hide what they’re going through.
When supporting someone who’s navigating post-traumatic stress symptoms, here are five key things to keep in mind.
PTSD Causes Sensory And Emotional Overload
One of the primary symptoms of PTSD is hypervigilance, a pervasive feeling of insecurity accompanied by the nonstop need to scan for possible danger. In my case, I was hyper-aware of my surroundings and was constantly on the lookout for threats — things that could trigger me, or other dangerous events, real or imagined. After my father took his life, I felt out of control. I hadn’t been able to save him, but my traumatized brain told me that if I just became extra-vigilant about everyone else in my life and made sure they were all okay, I could get some of that control back.
I see the faultiness in this line of reasoning now, but then I was in a heightened state of arousal at all times — even my senses of smell and hearing were intensified. All of this is quite common, especially during the early stages of PTSD. If your loved one is in the throes of PTSD, they are likely to feel on highest alert, possibly with major sensitivities to loud noises and large crowds. I still crave lots of alone time and tend to get nervous and uncomfortable when there are a lot of people around.
Being aware and respectful of your loved one’s hypervigilant state; supporting them in creating calm, quiet environments will go a long way to making them feel safe. They already feel like their world is spinning out of control, so it’s important to help slow things down.
Being Present And Available Is Pivotal
When I was at my worst, there was one question that always made me feel better: “How are you feeling?”
It sounds simple, but to someone who’s grieving or struggling with PTSD, there’s something very powerful and comforting about this question. Any time a friend or family member took the time to listen to me, it made me feel like they cared, like my father wasn’t being forgotten and was still important in people’s lives. My father was a person who deserves to be remembered, and it helped me to talk about him — both how he died and how he lived.
Talking with others allowed me to process my trauma and helped me remember that I wasn’t alone. There’s something wonderful about listening and being listened to. And in fact, feeling connected and nurtured is a big part of healing from trauma. That said, for some, talking about their trauma is deeply triggering and can even exacerbate symptoms, so don’t be upset if your loved one doesn’t want to talk about it. Keep checking in, but take their cue on the best way to help them — and let them come to you in their own time when they’re ready to talk about what they’ve been through.
Your Words Have Tremendous Power
It sounds obvious, but it’s so important to be understanding and use your words delicately. I wince every time I hear the word “suicide” — that three-syllable word ushers in a flood of grief and emotions, causing me to re-experience the trauma of my own father’s suicide all over again.
Many trauma survivors have these kinds of triggers — those words, situations, or even noises or smells — that cause PTSD symptoms to flare. Such triggers can be quite harmful, even debilitating; they can cause depressive episodes, extreme anxiety, even terror. Being cognizant of these triggers and recognizing their potency is crucial. Words like “suicide” might just be some abstract concept for you, but to people like me who’ve lived through the suicide of a loved one, such words define our life and daily reality.
PTSD Isn’t Something Anyone Can Just “Get Over”
It’d be nice if there were a pill I could take to have all these emotions just disappear, but sadly, PTSD just doesn’t work like that. This disorder is something I’ll work on managing for the rest of my life. There have been, and no doubt will continue to be, peaks and valleys — times where I struggle and times where my symptoms are relatively at bay. I’ve even been able to go off one of my medications, while my anxiety level has continued tapering off.
But the worst thing you can do when trying to help is tell someone, “Oh, just get over it. You should be able to control those emotions by now.” You can, however, support someone by aiding them in finding effective treatment strategies, such as psychotherapy, medication, support groups, anxiety management techniques, settling into a routine, and exercising regularly.
Help Reestablish Some Normalcy
While it’s important to check in and listen to a loved one discuss what they’re going through, it’s equally as important to provide a break from the intense emotions of PTSD. It’s easy for someone in the all-consuming throes of a flareup or suffering from extreme grief to lose sight of anything beyond the pain. Providing an outlet, an avenue to some normalcy, is essential. Even something as simple as accompanying someone to the movies or a park can help PTSD seem less overwhelming.
My mom and I, for example, got into the habit of watching Frasier every night when we were in the midst of our grief. Not only did it give us a routine to count on, but it never failed to draw us out and make us laugh — a lifesaver during our darkest times.
To those who are grappling with the disorder: getting help will show you that you’re not alone, and the support will help you see the light at the end of the dark PTSD tunnel. PTSD can be a very isolating experience, but being surrounded by loved ones allows you to remember just how strong you actually are. With them, you can begin to see yourself and your future beyond your immediate symptoms.
And the bottom line for those who are looking to be supportive: keep in mind that nothing is too small or insignificant. You’re probably more of a help than you even know. And the most important thing you can do for someone suffering is deceptively simple: Let them know you’ll always be there for them.