Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an often crippling condition that affects a significant portion of our society. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, nearly six of every 10 men and five of every 10 women will experience at least a single trauma in their lives. Women are more likely to experience child sexual abuse or sexual assault than men. In contrast, men are more likely to experience combat disasters, physical assault, experience accidents, or witness severe injury or death.
When it comes to PTSD, you should never look at it as a sign of weakness. Several factors can increase the odds someone will develop PTSD, which are out of a person’s control. If you were directly exposed to a severe injury or trauma, your chances are elevated of developing PTSD.
In a given year, an estimated 8 million adults will deal with PTSD, while seven or eight out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. If you know someone who is struggling with the condition, you might wonder how you can help them. Below, we’ll explain how you can help someone with PTSD step-by-step.
Learn more about this mental health disorder, how to deal with PTSD, and how to help someone with PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and flashback memories of a traumatic event. PTSD is often associated with anxiety disorders and can include many of the same symptoms as generalized anxiety or panic disorders. However, PTSD is always rooted in a past traumatic event that triggers the disorder. Flashbacks are another unique aspect of PTSD.
Flashbacks are dissociative episodes in which you feel like you are experiencing the traumatic event all over again. In severe flashbacks, you may become completely unaware of the world around you. Flashbacks are also associated with retraumatization, which is when a flashback feels so real that you experience the trauma like it is new.
The causes of PTSD are unknown. It’s unclear why some people may experience a traumatic event and develop PTSD while someone else may experience the same event but have no lasting trauma. Like most mental health disorders, the causes likely involve multiple factors at once, including genetics, environmental, and developmental predispositions. Your internal and external experiences during and after the traumatic event may also play a role.
For instance, people who debrief with a counselor or peers after experiencing a natural disaster may be less likely to develop PTSD. Likewise, people who continue to watch news coverage of a natural disaster after they experienced it firsthand may be more likely to experience PTSD.
Military service members and first responders are among the most common groups that experience the disorder. However, civilians can develop PTSD from various events, including car accidents, assaults, sexual assault, and childhood trauma.
Living with Someone Who has PTSD
When a friend, partner, or family member has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they aren’t the only one who’s affected. PTSD is challenging to live with and can take its toll on family life and other relationships. You might be hurt by your loved one’s moodiness or distance and struggle to understand their behavior. Why are they more volatile or less affectionate?
It could feel like you’re living with a stranger or walking on eggshells each time you interact. You could also be dealing with frustration or taking on a larger share of household tasks. PTSD symptoms can even lead to substance abuse, joblessness, and other issues that affect the family unit.
It’s challenging not to take someone’s PTSD symptoms personally, but it’s vital to remember that someone with PTSD doesn’t always have control over their behavior. Your significant other, family member, or friend’s nervous system is stuck in a state of constant alertness, which makes them continue to feel unsafe or vulnerable. They’re constantly reliving the traumatic experience, leading to irritability, anger, mistrust, depression, and other PTSD symptoms that can’t simply be shut off.
With the proper support from family, friends, or yourself, your loved one can eventually become “unstuck.” With the following tips, you can help them start to move on from the traumatic event and return to a semblance of normalcy.
Provide Social Support
It’s common for someone with PTSD to withdraw from friends and family. It’s possible they’re feeling ashamed and not wanting to burden others, or they believe that others won’t understand what they’re going through. It’s vital to respect your loved one’s boundaries, but your support and comfort will help them overcome feelings of grief, hopelessness, and despair. Trauma experts believe that face-to-face support is the most crucial factor in PTSD recovery.
Knowing how to best demonstrate your support for a person with PTSD is difficult, but you can’t force them to get better. However, you can play a significant role in their healing process by spending time together.
- Don’t pressure a person going through PTSD into talking.
- Do “normal” things with your significant other or person with PTSD.
- Let them take the lead.
- Manage your own stress wisely.
- Be patient.
- Educate yourself about PTSD and its symptoms.
- Accept and expect a mixed bag of feelings.
Be a Good Listener
Although you should never push someone with PTSD to talk, if they choose to share their feelings, make sure to listen without judgment or expectations. Make it clear that you care, and you’re interested, but don’t insist on giving advice. The act of listening is helpful to your loved one, not what you try to say.
Someone with PTSD may need to talk about the event repeatedly, which is part of the healing process. You must avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop talking about the past and move on. You should offer to talk as many times as they wish.
Some of the things they tell you might be hard to listen to. It’s OK to dislike what you hear, as long as you respect their reactions and feelings.
Rebuild Trust and Safety
Trauma alters how a person with PTSD sees the making, and it might even seem like a dangerous and frightening place. If there’s any way you can rebuild their sense of security, it will contribute to their recovery in the long term. You should express your commitment to the relationship and let them know you’re here for them so that they feel supported and loved.
Anticipate and Manage Triggers
A trigger can be anything—a place, person, situation, or thing—that reminds the person of the trauma and set off their PTSD. Sometimes, a trigger is obvious, while others may take time to understand and identify. Triggers don’t necessarily have to be external. Internal sensations and feelings can also trigger PTSD symptoms.
You should ask your friend or loved one about things they’ve done in the past to respond to triggers that helped or something that didn’t help. You can come up with a game plan together for how you’ll react to these in the future.
Deal with Anger and Volatility
PTSD and anger problems are often related. PTSD often leads to challenges when managing impulses and emotions, which might manifest in your loved one as moodiness, extreme irritability, or explosions of rage. A person dealing with PTSD lives in a constant state of emotional and physical stress. Since they experience sleep troubles like insomnia, it means they’re constantly on edge and exhausted, increasing the likelihood they’ll overreact to daily stressors.
For many of those with PTSD, anger might also be a mask for other feelings like helplessness, guilt, or grief. Anger allows them to feel powerful instead of vulnerable and weak. Others might suppress their anger until it erupts at a time you least expect. You should watch for signs that your loved one is angry and try to remain calm. Try giving them personal space and ask how you can help. Anger is a healthy emotion, but chronic anger spirals can have adverse consequences.
How to Help Someone With PTSD Sleep
Sleep problems and anxiety disorders often go hand in hand. When your mind is restless with worry, it can be hard to get to sleep at night. However, PTSD comes with the added complication of nightmares and sleep disturbances. That means when you do get to sleep, you may not get good rest. Nightmares may wake you up, or cause restless sleep, leaving you feeling tired the next day. Sleep disorders are common health problems in the United States, but it’s a serious issue.
Sleep problems can contribute to several mental and physical health problems, including poor concentration, depression, obesity, and heart disease. Getting your sleep under control can be an important step in addressing broader mental health issues.
If PTSD is the reason a loved one is struggling to sleep, a few things may help in addition to treating PTSD directly. Good habits that promote sleep are called good sleep hygiene. Several ways to improve sleep hygiene include the following:
- Keep a fixed sleep schedule. Carve out a consistent eight- to 10-hour block of time for bed. Don’t go to bed and wake up at different times every day.
- Prioritize sleep. Commit to getting a good night’s sleep. That may mean cutting leisure activities or work short, but it may also mean being rested and present for work and leisure tomorrow.
- Dim your lights. Bright lights can trick your brain into thinking it’s time to be up and moving. Dim lighting may help produce important chemicals needed for sleep in the brain.
- Unplug. Unplug from electronics at least 30 minutes before bed. These may cause too much mental stimulation to facilitate quick sleep.
- Wind down. It can be hard to go straight from high activity to sleep. Try to wind down with relaxing activities like reading before bed.
- Reset. If you lie awake for 20 minutes with no sleep, don’t toss and turn. Get up and do something else relaxing.
Despite the importance of your support and love, it’s not always enough. Many people who experience trauma need professional therapy. However, bringing this up can be a touchy subject. Think to yourself first: how would you feel if someone suggested you needed treatment?
Wait for the right moment to voice these concerns, and don’t bring them up if you’re in the middle of a crisis or arguing. Make sure to be careful with your language. Always avoid anything that implies the other person is crazy. Frame it in a positive light that treatment is a way to acquire new skills and use them to handle PTSD-related challenges.
You should focus on specific problems, emphasize the benefits, acknowledge the limitations and hassle of therapy, enlist help from individuals the person trusts and respects, and encourage them to join a support group.
Understanding how your loved one feels will help both of you. PTSD causes the individual to have feelings of helplessness and intense fear. Since your loved one is likely dealing with intense fear, sleep disturbance, and hypervigilance, they might feel like control has been stripped away. These are common signs of PTSD. Stress and a lack of sleep make it more challenging for someone to see the situation clearly and make solid decisions for treatment.
Living With Someone Coping with PTSD
Living with a person who is struggling with PTSD is a challenge, but you shouldn’t feel alone when supporting the person you love. You should never take these symptoms personally because PTSD hijacks the nervous system and causes a constant state of hyper-awareness.
Consider the following strategies to help you cope with another person’s PTSD. These include:
- Writing out your feelings and thoughts that you want to work through or discuss during therapy sessions
- Having a plan for setting boundaries, such as expressing discomfort with topics
- Writing down questions or goals for improvement that you have about PTSD, which could be coping with it and healing from it