Approximately 8 million Americans suffer from PTSD at any given time. As a loved one of someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, you know how devastating this mental health diagnosis can be. Watching a spouse, friend, or family member suffer is difficult, and you probably feel an urge to help them. Supporting someone with PTSD can be tricky, and frustrating at times. You won’t be able to cure them or completely take their pain away, but you can help. Knowing how to help someone with PTSD will be rewarding for you and could be a lifeline for them.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder caused by exposure to traumatic events. These may include:
- Serious accidents
- Sexual assault
- Domestic violence
- Natural disaster
Some people experience trauma and only struggle with the memories for a short while. Others go on to have significant trouble that impacts functioning in areas of life like relationships, school, and work. They get stuck in the fear and anxiety they felt when they were originally faced with the traumatic event. This can happen to them even in normal, non-threatening settings.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
Symptoms of PTSD can last months or years. They may even worsen over time. Some symptoms can be directly observed, while others you may learn about through conversations with your loved one.
A few symptoms of PTSD are:
- Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event
- Avoiding people, places, or activities that bring back unwanted memories
- Negative beliefs about oneself or the world
- Nightmares about the event
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- Feeling jumpy or easily startled
- Overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame
- Substance use
It’s important to note that comorbid conditions often occur with posttraumatic stress. About 80% of people with PTSD have a comorbid mental health disorder at some point in their life. Major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders are especially common. Substance abuse disorders also occur frequently, since many people with PTSD turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms.
How Can You Start Helping?
People with PTSD may be very private about what they’ve been through and how it’s affecting them. This could be due to the shame and guilt that often comes with the disorder. They may not have told anyone about their trauma and have a deep reluctance to share because they fear judgment and criticism. Even though you have the best of intentions, it’s difficult for people with PTSD to rationally gauge how others will react to hearing their stories.
Here are a few tips to follow while you do your best to love and support someone suffering from post-traumatic stress:
1. Remember that while your loved one’s behavior has changed, who they are has not.
Don’t treat your loved one like they’re a different person. They still have the same interests and qualities they had before. Help them feel normal again by encouraging them to take part in activities they used to enjoy, and join them if you can.
2. Read up on PTSD, and use your knowledge if needed.
Learn about the signs and symptoms of PTSD, as well as related conditions like panic attacks, so you can give knowledgeable guidance if needed. Learn a few basic coping skills for PTSD that you can teach your loved one.
3. When they’re willing to talk, listen.
You can do everything in your power to try to get them to open up, but your loved one will talk when they’re ready to. When they do, offer a caring, empathetic ear. If it takes longer than you expect it to for them to be ready, be patient. Let them know you’re there when (or if) they want to talk.
4. Be aware of their triggers, and help them feel safe.
Your loved one with PTSD is stuck in a cycle of feeling constantly threatened and vulnerable. Give them plenty of physical space, provide a quiet and calm environment, and stick to a consistent routine.
5. Take care of yourself.
You can’t take care of anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep and set time aside for your own interests and social supports. You’re at risk of developing secondary trauma if you don’t establish boundaries and use your own coping skills.
What Not to Do for Someone with PTSD
There are several things to avoid while trying to help someone with PTSD. You could, despite your best intentions, end up making it harder for them to recover.
- Pressure them into talking or bombard them with questions.
- Try to relate when you can’t, or take over the conversation with your own thoughts and feelings.
- Give simplified statements like, “Everything’s going to be fine.”
- Tell them they’re lucky it wasn’t worse.
- Try to diagnose them or be their therapist.
Encourage Them to Seek PTSD Treatment
If your friend or family member isn’t already in treatment and you’re watching them suffer, suggest treatment for PTSD. This is part of knowing your boundaries and remembering that while you can help, you don’t have access to all the resources that professionals do.
There are many treatment options for PTSD, including:
There are several highly effective therapy models for PTSD. Most notable among them is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. The American Psychiatric Association recommends this therapy for the treatment of PTSD because it involves learning about the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions. Clients are taught coping skills to interrupt the negative ways thoughts, feelings, and actions influence each other.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
EMDR helps desensitize people to the painful emotions that come from trauma. Unlike other therapies, clients don’t necessarily need to talk about their trauma. They’re asked to remember their traumatic events while watching a therapist use a repetitive motion, like moving his or her hand back and forth. During this time, they’re taught to replace negative emotions and beliefs with positive ones.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are medications often used to treat PTSD and are effective for many people. The National Center for PTSD reports that the four medications shown to work best for PTSD sufferers are:
- Sertraline (Zoloft®)
- Venlafaxine (Effexor®)
- Fluoxetine (Prozac®)
- Paroxetine (Paxil®)
Prazosin can be used to treat trauma-related nightmares.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
TMS for PTSD targets the areas of the brain that are dysregulated by PTSD and that produce symptoms like flashbacks. In a TMS session, a technician will gently place a coil on your loved one’s head. The coil delivers magnetic stimulation to the areas of their brain affected by trauma and helps to correct brain chemistry. Not yet approved by the FDA for PTSD, TMS may not be covered by insurance. The sessions are short and non-invasive, with little to no side effects.
Now that you have a better idea of how to help someone experiencing post-traumatic stress, you’re more prepared to be a solid part of their support system. You may not be able to fix their problems as much as you wish you could, but you can play an important role in helping them feel more like themselves. If you think TMS for PTSD could be a good off-label solution for your loved one, contact HPR Treatment Centers. We have locations across the country and financing options to help you cover the cost of treatment.