Learn how to effectively help someone with PTSD, as discussed by mental wellness experts.
Here are their insights:
Licensed Psychologist | Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor-Supervisor | Licensed Clinical Alcohol & Drug Counselor | Owner, Institute for HEALing, LLC (iHEAL)
Learn their triggers
It’s pretty common knowledge that loud noises and sudden movements/flashes can be triggers for people who have PTSD from a war experience. However, you can have PTSD from other trauma experiences like vehicle accidents, sexual assault, and physical attacks. It is often helpful if you know your loved one’s trauma triggers.
A trauma trigger is anything that creates an anxiety (or stress) response in a person.
Knowing someone’s triggers can be hard for several reasons. Sometimes your loved one doesn’t know their triggers, so they can’t inform others of what to do or what not to do.
Triggers vary from person to person. For example, two people who were in the same vehicle accident can walk away with different triggers.
Triggers aren’t always obvious, and they aren’t always external to our bodies. We can be triggered by an image that we see or a sound that we hear. Many people understand these triggers because they are sometimes obvious. However, smells, tastes, and touches can be triggering too.
Additionally, our thoughts, memories, flashbacks, and dreams can be triggers. These are internal processes that others may not even know we are experiencing at the moment.
The best thing that you can do for a loved one is taking notice of what creates that stress response. It will be helpful for you to say…
“I notice that when you wake up from naps, you seem to be really tense for the first hour and then you settle down. I wonder if you are having a dream during the nap that scares you” or “I notice that when we get into arguments, you hold your body in a fetal position. Did you notice that?”
Avoid touch without permission
Touch, no matter how innocent, may not be welcomed by all. Trauma survivors, particularly those who have experienced sexual or physical violations, may be negatively impacted by a simple pat on the back from a teacher or a touch on the shoulder from a friend.
Many times, sexual predators start their predatory process with warm, gentle touches. Eventually, these touches may lead to more forceful, unwanted, violent, or painful touches.
In a situation like this, a person may be triggered by that pat on the back because that was the beginning of the trauma experience for them.
This is why it’s really important that you ask for permission before you touch people. Additionally, if you are in a healthcare field, it’s helpful if you describe what you are going to do before you do it to the patient. Then, as you are doing it, continue to narrate your behavior.
For example, “Ms. Klein, in a few minutes, I’m going to lean the exam table back and ask you to lay down on your back. Then, I’m going to pull out the stirrups and guide your legs into the correct position. You let me know if any of that is uncomfortable, OK?”
Once you begin, you can say, “OK, I’m leaning you back. It will feel jerky but the nurse is on the other side of you and I’m on this side. You won’t fall. Now, I’m going to touch your legs and put them in the right spot. My hands should be pretty warm.”
This is an example of how a medical doctor may touch a patient in a way that creates safety and predictability.
Take a trauma-informed approach
Trauma-informed care is an approach in healthcare that requires a provider to assume that a patient has experienced at least one trauma in the past. Based on this assumption, a provider would engage the patient differently than if a trauma history was not present.
With that being said, trauma-informed care doesn’t have to be relegated to healthcare providers. We can take this approach in our personal lives.
- What if we, as drivers, assumed that the person who just cut me off was triggered by thought and needs to get to a safe place?
- What if teachers assumed that the student who is not able to answer a question in class was triggered by your “friendly” pat on the back?
- What if consumers assumed that the cashier who looks angry has just been verbally attacked by a superior?
Of course, this approach is hard to maintain all the time. It requires intense compassion and empathy. However, it can go a long way in helping to understand our family, friends, neighbors, and even perfect strangers.
Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.
Licensed Professional Counselor (Certified in Post Traumatic Stress specializing in Child Trauma), Choosing Therapy | Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University
Consider the individual
Helping a loved one with PTSD starts with the level of functioning in the individual. A person with milder symptoms can be helped much easier by friends/family than someone with significant intrusive symptoms. That requires professional intervention.
For those with milder symptoms, patience, understanding, and self-educating about PTSD symptoms are all strategies.
Understanding that PTSD symptoms involve hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, and affective responses is imperative. These are all conditioned responses and not intentional behaviors.
Support groups can be highly effective and much cheaper than therapy
Finding a support group for a similar type of traumatic event can be most helpful. For example, veteran’s support groups are better for PTSD resulting from war than are more generic trauma-based groups.
With serious symptoms that create an inability to focus or do the business of life, there is no substitute for professional intervention. Symptoms don’t often just go away by themselves and damage done over time can be life-long – alcoholism, addictions, unemployment, relationship issues, etc.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Eating Psychology Therapist
Learn about PTSD
Without having a real understanding of PTSD, people with the best intentions may try to make those with it feel better but end up making their condition worse.
Read up about this clinical disorder or listen to podcasts to understand the complex neuro-bio-chemical and social aspects of it. Recognize that it’s nothing people choose to have and that they can’t simply get over it or will it away.
Steer them toward therapy
It’s important not to pressure people with PTSD into therapy, but it’s also crucial not to steer them away from it on the assumption that talking about their condition might worsen it.
If someone seems interested in therapy, encourage them to find professional treatment and offer help with doing so. The goal is to help them find a therapist who specializes in trauma. If someone insists they won’t go to therapy, don’t fight with them. Be supportive and ask if you can bring up the possibility at a later date.
Know the signs
After a traumatic event, some people simply don’t seem like themselves, that is, the way they were before whatever happened to them. Many people with PTSD exhibit withdrawal/social isolation as a way of coping with their symptoms.
A great many are ashamed of how they feel and may act, thinking it’s their fault they can’t control their minds or actions. Others abuse substances, particularly alcohol or drugs, or engage in risky behaviors as a way to self-medicate.
If you sense that someone might be a danger to themselves or others, talk to them frankly about your fears and with their family members and friends come up with a plan of prevention and ongoing support.
Anthony Nave, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Regional Director of Outpatient Services, Mountainside Treatment Center
People who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response after experiencing a traumatic event, such as all types of abuse, natural disasters, military combat, and more.
Recognize the signs
Fight, flight, and freeze are healthy responses we have innately, but when we are in these states for prolonged periods or due to the nature of the event, experiencing a high level of dissociation can lead to the development of PTSD.
The experience of the trauma is unique to each individual, and professionals have tried to use two categories to classify traumatic events. One is referred to as small “t” traumas, that fit the expression, “death by 10,000 paper cuts.”
These are recurring experiences that activate our defenses, and we remain in this heightened state of defense due to their repeated nature.
For example, a child who is neglected and/or emotionally abused daily, toxic relationships we get into with emotionally abusive partners or the daily experience of systemic racism or discrimination for sexual orientation.
Big “T” traumas are events that are more often thought of, such as near-death experiences from natural disasters or accidents, physical and sexual assault, and combat experiences.
To help someone with PTSD, a person should be able to recognize some common signs of the disorder, including distrust and struggle in relationships, a hard time staying present and remembering, a lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed, flashbacks and nightmares, insomnia, sudden mood swings, and substance abuse, which can lead to its own disorder.
Knowing these symptoms can provide greater insight into the depth of a loved one’s emotional struggles and allow one to better anticipate when their loved one may feel triggered.
Encourage a loved one to seek professional support
PTSD symptoms can feel debilitating, but with help, can be managed. Often, the most effective way to ensure a loved one receives the necessary level of care is to connect them with a credentialed mental health professional.
With the guidance of a therapist, your loved one can address their symptoms and develop coping strategies using evidence-based treatments such as Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), Art Therapy, Narrative Trauma Therapy, and more.
For some, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can be an efficacious form of treatment for integrating trauma memories, in order to be less reactive toward them and reframe negative beliefs into a resilient narrative that can help a person lead a more content life in the present.
For more support, loved ones can engage in programs that offer family-based treatment, which helps families as well as the person struggling with PTSD to better understand what is happening, develop stress management techniques, and foster healthier communication as a unit.
Alisha Sweyd, MA, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Certified First Responder Counselor | Certified Clinical Trauma Professional | Director and Co-Founder, Code 3 Counseling
One of the things I love about working with responders who have PTSD is the ability to do couples work with them.
I have found that it is in these close and intimate relationships that people truly heal from the trauma they experience, whether it is a single incident (like a sexual assault) or from cumulative events (such as seeing dead bodies in car accidents over and over again).
Accept the fact that we won’t be able to fix it for them
When you love someone with PTSD, you will want to fix it for them. To make their symptoms and “bad feelings” go away. People who experience PTSD struggle with even thinking good things about themselves, they may even go so far as to blame themselves for the trauma.
While we all know this is not okay, and that staying in this place is even worse, unfortunately, we can’t fix it. I can’t help my husband unsee the horrific scenes he is exposed to at work as a first responder. And I can’t stop him from seeing more of them.
I can’t make my sister feel better after a miscarriage. I can’t make my friend feel better after a sexual assault.
The first thing we need to do as people who care for and love someone with PTSD is to accept the fact that we won’t be able to fix it for them. They will need to do the work to overcome their trauma, but we can’t force them to do it. In fact, that actually makes it worse.
When I try to fix my partner’s trauma, I am telling him that his traumatic experience, and in particular his response to that experience, is not allowed in our relationship. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want to trust what someone says when what they do tells me I am not accepted at my weakest points.
When we try to fix someone else’s trauma, we are actually doing it for ourselves and our own discomfort, not to genuinely help our loved one with PTSD.
Don’t let them be and feel alone
So then what do you do? Well first, you don’t let them be alone. You let them know, “I am here for you. No matter what.” If they start to talk about the trauma, you sit and listen and remind them you love them, no matter what they went through. No, you can’t understand it.
No, you can’t fathom their pain. But you will sit there and love them in that pain.
Maybe it looks like making them food, comfort food, or healthy food. Maybe that looks like cleaning up the kitchen and washing their dishes. Maybe it looks like planning a movie night every week where you sit together in silence. Seriously, just your presence will make the world of a difference.
What you are telling your loved one is, “Hey, I know you are in a sucky place right now. I want you to know, I love you. You are not alone in this.” That relationship, that connection, is what will tell their brains that the world can still be a safe and loving place despite the trauma they experienced.
Keep an eye out for red flags
If they stop going to work for more than a month, if they stop talking to people altogether, if they start talking about wanting to die or end their life, this is when they truly need professional help. But telling them, “You need to see a professional” is not going to help (in fact, it can often make it worse).
What you can do is find a therapist for them. Search on Google and find three local therapists who specialize in trauma. Look for LMFTs, LCSWs, LPCs, and psychologists who have trauma counseling on their website.
If your friend needs to use their insurance, call the insurance for them and find out how they can find a therapist who accepts the insurance. Then, have your loved one pick one of the two or three therapists you have given them.
Be with them when they call to schedule an appointment, or schedule the appointment for them, and support them through the process of getting connected. If you are married or in a serious relationship, asking if couples support sessions would help your spouse or loved one in the process.
Laura Braziel, MMFT, LPC, LMFT
Certified EMDR Therapist | Owner, Authentic Relational Counseling
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is more common than you might think. The range of traumatic experiences is vast and can include such experiences as social rejection, loss of a loved one, a vehicle accident, an assault, or even years of neglect.
If you are wanting to help someone suffering from PTSD, there are several things you can do:
Start by educating yourself. As humans, we have a tendency to judge what we do not understand, and mental health issues unfortunately are no exception. Read reputable books and articles about PTSD.
But more importantly, listen to the person you care to help. Don’t play the expert and don’t try to fix. Every individual differs in how they respond to trauma and what they need to get better.
Due to the way in which trauma is stored in the brain, a person can experience a flood of unexpected distressing emotions and body sensations with exposure to persons, places, or things that resemble some aspect of the trauma.
Therefore, you can help by observing and considering circumstances that seem to cause discomfort or avoidance and limit exposure to such circumstances. Do not pressure them to face those fears as it may result in re-traumatization.
When someone has PTSD they may verbalize negative beliefs about themselves and their fault in the trauma. You may know that their beliefs are false and unhealthy, but disputing with them only invalidates a very real feeling which further complicates their trauma.
A common example is one where the sufferer believes they are crazy for how they feel and think. In reality, they are not crazy; they are traumatized. Instead of telling them their thoughts are untrue, acknowledge the feelings as painful for them and practice empathy.
For someone with PTSD, hypervigilance is a common symptom that often results in panic attacks, flashbacks, or dissociation. If you are with them when this occurs, stay calm. Your stability in the midst of their instability can be the one constant that helps bring them back to calm.
Give them direct eye contact, say their name in a soothing and soft tone while guiding them to breathe slowly and deeply.
Stay patient. As they begin to reorient, continue helping to ground them into reality by asking them to identify specifics of their setting, such as what they see, what they hear, and the textures of things they can touch. Again, stay calm and patient.
PTSD is treatable and individuals can find relief from the constant suffering. Encourage them to seek therapy from a reputable counselor, preferably one who specializes in trauma and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
EMDR is a highly researched and effective psychotherapy approach using bi-lateral stimulation to activate natural healing mechanisms within the brain and bring about a significant reduction in distress.
Additionally, if you can find local trauma support groups, encourage the sufferer to try attending.
There are alternative therapies as well that offer assistance to those suffering from PTSD. Some of those include a regular yoga practice or participation in theater or drama.
As the person hoping to help someone suffering with PTSD, your role is to be a patient support, giving the sufferer as long as they may need to work towards healing.
Aniko Dunn, Psy.D.
Doctor of Psychology, EZCare Clinic
It is very painful to see someone in your friends and family experiencing PTSD or complex PTSD. Following are a few tips that you can help someone with PTSD.
Listen to their hearts
- Listen to them, let them discuss their own thoughts and feelings.
- Allowing them to upset about what happened with them in past.
- Don’t suggest any scenario in the alternative of the incident.
Don’t push and try not to judge
If you’re not experiencing PTSD to yourself. It is hard to understand that why your friend or family member is not moving forward from the incident. You can wish to get things back to normal but don’t judge them and give them time and support to heal from the event.
Learn to handle their crises
- Encourage them to write a crisis plan.
- Discuss symptoms for PTSD.
- Get to know the triggers and learn how to cope with them.
Set boundaries and respect their space
- Avoid controlling the person.
- Don’t touch or cuddle them without permission.
- Try not to shock or surprise them.
Encourage them to seek treatment
It’s not in your control to convince someone for treatment. If they are ready or are considering treatment, you can inspire them along the way, nevertheless.
Do some research for treatment choices available for PTS. Look for the institutes that provide treatments and programs and are specialized in PTSD. Do homework on the benefits of treatment and, when your friend is ready, share what you have research for PTSD treatments.
When someone has PTSD, they are more likely to involve in social isolation. Because of anxiety or fear of judgment, someone with PTSD might avoid friends and family.
Learning how to support someone with PTSD can help prevent this sense of isolation which often deteriorates symptoms. Provide PTSD support through hearing and showing that you care. Don’t do it by trying to pressure the person into sharing with you when they don’t want to, or by suggesting actions that they aren’t ready for yet. Practice being a firm, reliable and truthful presence in their life.
John S. Berry, Jr.
CEO and Managing Partner, Berry Law (Veterans Law Attorneys)
Finding the right team for a person struggling with PTSD is essential
They will need specialists and colleagues who understand stress disorders. For many, family may not be enough. Be supportive and help them get advocates.
Veterans are accustomed to working in teams. Hence, it would be especially beneficial for those who served in the military. I’ve worked with survivors of military sexual trauma and some of the feedback I got from them is that they were in a place where they felt powerless.
The best way to combat these emotions is to take responsibility for everything going forward by being the conductor of your life. You will in effect, reclaim your power and shift the feelings from victim to victor. When you have an “everything only happens to you” mentality, you stay powerless.
When you choose who you want to become, you can turn every situation into a lesson. Then you only get better, stronger, and more powerful.
Help them to be around things that remind them of the future instead of the past
Bring something new into their life: an interest, a pet, a cause, etc. When past thoughts bring them doubt, remind them to recharge their inner child, which is full of innocence and wonder and can help tremendously in looking forward to the future.
Trying anything new – even walking down a new street or taking a new look at the surrounding nature- can stimulate the ability to renew oneself.
Beverly King, LCMHCS, CCTP
Clinic Director, Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Hope For The Warriors
People with PTSD often feel burdensome to those around them. It’s important to know what you can to do help your loved ones as they navigate through the complex experiences that come with PTSD.
Don’t pressure them to talk to you about their trauma
A lot of loved ones want to help by asking about the trauma that has been endured. Pressuring someone to talk about a trauma before they are ready may lead to increased suppression of the emotions and feelings, meaning a longer recovery time frame is possible.
What should you do: allow your loved one the freedom to talk about their trauma on their terms. Don’t shy away from listening to their story if they want to share it, but don’t push them to tell it if they aren’t ready.
Keep a low-stress routine
A lot of times when dealing with PTSD, the unknown can be very jarring and scary. Keeping a routine is a good way to help your loved one feel safe and secure at all times. Being able to predict what is going to happen can be a very useful tool when dealing with the stressors of PTSD.
Be a good listener
When your loved one is ready to talk, allow them the space to safely do that with you. Telling them everything is fine or ok is not helpful, but listening to their story is. They don’t want or need you to fix it for them, they just need you to listen.
These things can really help you and your loved one stay connected and helpful to each other while working together to overcome some of the negative effects that PTSD can have on a person.
Kate Hanselman, PMNHP
Board-Certified Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Thriveworks
In essence, PTSD can be understood as a lack of effective recovery from traumatic events, which change the way we see ourselves and the world.
If we consider PTSD this way, we gain access to a number of effective treatment modalities, from Cognitive Processing Therapy to Prolonged Exposure to medications to support symptom management. There is help available and you and your family do not need to suffer alone.
Developing an understanding of what PTSD is, what it isn’t, and how it’s treated can be very helpful to caregivers and patients alike. Because of a diverse array of symptoms, PTSD often goes unrecognized and untreated for too long.
It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of PTSD to ensure prompt treatment, and also to give family members a better understanding of what their loved one is going through.
Respect their boundaries
Now that you’re well-versed in PTSD, it can be tempting to jump right in, ask lots of questions, or try to direct your loved one’s care. However, it’s essential to let your loved one lead the way with your support alongside. For example, if they don’t want to talk about it, respect that boundary–when they are ready, they’ll know you’re there.
Ask them what support would be helpful (taking notes at a doctor’s visit, keeping track of appointments, listening) and follow through. If a family member doesn’t want your help, remember that withdrawal and isolation can be symptoms of PTSD, and it is not personal.
Maintain your own boundaries and take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself is essential to being able to continue to support your loved one who is struggling. Keep those planned activities with your friends on your schedule, maintain good sleep hygiene, and make your needs known.
If you need someone to talk to, seek out therapy. It can be challenging to support a loved one who is struggling, and you deserve support too. Ask for help with everyday tasks or emotional support from friends, family, medical professionals, members of your community, or whomever you feel comfortable with.
Spend quality time together
Whether it’s getting outside and getting moving, which is very helpful to promote wellness, or playing a game, or simply enjoying a meal together, it is crucial to spend time with your loved one that is not focused on their diagnosis nor their struggle.
This can be helpful for them to feel that connection and to feel valued as a family member or a friend, not just as someone with a diagnosis. It can also be helpful for you, to enjoy time with them as the multifaceted person they are and always have been.
A note about violent behavior: If your loved one’s anger escalates to violent behavior or abuse, go to a safe place, make sure children are safe, and get help right away.
Speaker, Storyteller and Executive Coach, Fall Risker
Trauma is a big topic, from events which range from the violence of war, crime or abuse, to the less obvious but often equally debilitating emotional trauma that affects individuals, families and evenentire cultures.
In America, about 80% of people will experience something traumatic. Of that group, about 20% will suffer from clinical post-traumatic stress disorder. The rest fall generally into two groups. One group recovers from their experience and returns to life more or less as it was before.
For the other group, the traumatic experience can become a point of departure in their life from which they move on with renewed purpose.
Reframe the situation into something positive
My interest in trauma is based on personal experience. About four years ago, I was in a serious bicycle accident that caused multiple injuries, put me in a coma for weeks, and took more than a year to recover from. I walk with a slight limp and still suffer from fatigue from the brain injury.
During my early recovery in a rehab hospital, I met regularly with a psychiatrist who talked to me about my trauma during every session. At that time, it was unclear how well I would recover.
I was learning to manage simple tasks like dressing myself, how to type on a computer and how to walk again on a badly damaged leg with an impaired sense of balance. He dug into the impact of my trauma on my life,career and family.
One day I asked him if he was treating me for PTSD….
“No,” he said, “you’re one of the fortunate ones. Because of the way you’re processing your accident, and the way you’re thinking and even writing about it, your trauma probably won’t define you negatively. In fact, it’s likely to become a turning point in your life, and one that in many ways will strengthen you. Through introspection, and telling your story, you’ll learn many valuable lessons about yourself.”
As part of my speech and language therapy, I was journaling almost every day. They had encouraged me to write about what was on my mind. I’d actually objected to the mundane reading and writing exercises they’d given me, so this gave me license to reflect on and write about the experience of nearly losing my life.
When I returned, part time, to running a small communication skills training business, I used this material in the classroom. One of our clients was a non-profit that worked with returning veterans. We delivered storytelling workshops to help them control their narrative as they transitioned from their life in the service to civilian life.
During one workshop, I told my story as a way to illustrate the technique. It dawned on me that many of their stories were about traumatic experiences, yet most of them were not exhibiting serious symptoms of PTSD. At least to my untrained eye.
In fact, when they told their stories, often about difficult, turning point moments in their lives, I noticed two things.
One, that their stories were just as likely to be about a trauma they’d encountered before joining the military, or in some cases the story was about the trauma of returning to civilian life after their service. And two, most of these stories came with a lesson; a lesson they learned about themselves and how they wanted to conduct their lives from that point on.
In the end, I suggested that for many of us we could re-define PTSD, not as post-traumatic stress disorder but as something quite different, even positive, post-traumatic self-discovery.
When I said this, the twenty people in the workshop stood and applauded. One gentleman limped up to me on a crutch and gave me a tight hug.
“Thanks, man”, he said. “We’ve all been through something tough but everyone automatically thinks we’re broken. And we’re not. We’re changed and life may be harder but this way of framing it means there is a way forward.”
Certified Trauma Recovery Coach (via International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching)
PTSD is caused by trauma, which is any experience that results in physical or emotional injuries that lead to a dysregulated nervous system.
Validate their experience
Having a safe social support system is important after experiencing a crisis or trauma, as healthy relationships can help regulate our nervous system. Hold compassionate space for the person to share their experience, to the level that they are comfortable with.
Listen to their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without judgment or desire to “fix” them. Being truly seen and heard can be a therapeutic experience for someone who is struggling with PTSD.
Re-establishing safety is key after experiencing a traumatic event. The amygdala – the part of our brain that is responsible for detecting threats in our environment – becomes overactivated in PTSD survivors, which easily triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response.
This causes PTSD survivors to live in a perpetual state of survival and hypervigilance, even in the absence of a real threat.
Some ways to establish safety include connecting back to the present moment by engaging our five senses (identifying something you can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste), practicing slow deep belly breathing (which sends safety signals to the brain), and reciting grounding affirmations, such as “I am safe.”
Asking and understanding someone’s trigger is a great way to support someone with PTSD. This is not for the purpose of avoiding or eliminating those triggers, but to become more aware of the patterns and reactions to better support someone through a flashback or panic attack.
Kellie Brown, LMHC, NCC, MCAP
Licensed Mental Health Counselor | National Board Certified Counselor | Owner, Quiet Water Counseling
Don’t force them to open up about what happened if they are not ready to talk
People who have PTSD often feel powerless and not in control. It is very important to let someone experiencing PTSD decide when and what to share.
It is very common for friends and family members to have questions about what happened but having the person with PTSD tell you all the gory details of the traumatic event will not be helpful in the long run and could even lead to the person with PTSD feeling overwhelmed and retraumatized.
Provide options for counseling
Let them know that counseling is an option and can really help but also be understanding if they are not ready to talk to a professional yet. PTSD is very treatable, and many people find that counseling can help them overcome many if not all of their symptoms.
That being said a very common symptom of PTSD is wanting to avoid anything that reminds them of the traumatic event so it can be very difficult for someone suffering from PTSD to even think about opening up to a counselor.
If your loved one does decide to talk with a counselor offering to go with them to the initial appointment, or spending time with them immediately after their appointment can make a huge difference in helping your loved one get the professional support they need.
Educate yourself on PTSD and get help for yourself if you feel you need it
PTSD affects not just the person who experienced the traumatic event, but can also affect their friends, family, and even coworkers. It can be really overwhelming seeing someone you care about having a hard time after a traumatic event and in some instances it can lead to you having a difficult time coping as well.
You might feel at a loss on how to help, and you might even have difficulties concentrating, or problems sleeping because you are so upset with what happened to your loved one.
It is way more common than people think for the loved ones of someone who has PTSD to see a counselor for themselves and it can also go a long way in helping the person with PTSD feel supported.
Be understanding of their particular triggers
A very common symptom of PTSD includes flashbacks of what happened during the traumatic event, this is often caused by something that triggers a memory. Triggers to the traumatic event could be anything a smell, a song, a name, etc.
To you or I, it might not signal anything to us but to the person with PTSD it is an automatic reminder of what happened to them and can immediately send them into distress.
Because triggers can be anything and many times the person with PTSD might not even be able to identify their particular triggers, it is very important that you be understanding if you do see that something, in particular, is triggering them.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Registered Play Therapist | Infant Mental Health Specialist
Understand that PTSD is variable
One of the greatest things you can do to help your loved one is to understand that PTSD looks different in different people. For example, although many individuals experienced the trauma of 9/11, there was a multitude of different trauma responses which coincided with the event.
Although most trauma results in behaviors related to fight, flight, flee, or flock, this can look different from person to person.
When reminded of the traumatic event, “Joe” may flee by leaving the state, while “Jenny” may flee by leaving the room. It is of utmost importance to validate your loved one’s personal experience and journey of healing from their trauma.
Let your loved one take the lead
Trauma work with a trained professional can be emotionally exhausting. In order to truly heal from trauma, your loved one has to be dedicated and ready to engage in treatment.
Your loved one is the only one who can determine if they are ready to do the work. Respect where your loved one is in their personal journey. If your loved one is already working with a professional, ask them how you can best be a support.
Just as PTSD can vary from person to person, ways to help an individual with PTSD can vary from person to person.
No matter how much you love and care about someone with PTSD, you won’t be a help to them if you are dysregulated yourself. Make sure you engage in self-care yourself so that you can be calm, cool, and collected when you are with your loved one.
This can be in the form of exercising, reading a book, eating healthfully, or simply taking a deep breath prior to interacting with your loved one.
As the saying goes, it’s important to put your own oxygen mask on prior to assisting others with theirs. The more regulated you are, the more you will be able to help your loved one.
Rachel Ragsdale, LPC, BCN
Clinical Mental Health Counselor | Co-founder and Co-owner, Braincode Centers
PTSD is never an easy mental health condition to grapple with. That intense traumatic event can be life-changing, as the emotional and mental burden of the trauma can make it incredibly difficult to live your life how you see fit.
Accept the fact you can’t force your loved one to get better
While we all experience and grapple with trauma differently, we all need to exercise caution when supporting someone with PTSD and be sensitive about the issue as well.
If you want to help a loved one with PTSD, you need to accept the fact you can’t force your loved one to get better. It’s their responsibility to deal with the mental health condition on their own time, but you can play a major role in the healing process simply by spending time together.
Take time to do “normal” things with your loved one
Take time to do “normal” things with your loved one that has nothing to do with PTSD or their traumatic experience. Those activities can help restore your loved one’s self-confidence, improve their self-esteem, and help them focus on other things to support their health.
These could be hobbies that bring your loved one pleasure, activities with friends, or even rhythmic exercises (e.g., walking, running, swimming, etc.).
Remember to be a good listener
This doesn’t mean that you should push them to talk about their PTSD and try to force them to focus on the subject. Rather, if they choose to share things with you, try to listen without expectations or judgments. That act of listening attentively will be very helpful for your loved one, as they get to express their feelings and thought processes to someone they trust.
Just remember: make it clear that you’re interested in them and that you care. Don’t worry about giving advice or easy answers. It’s more about giving them an opportunity to talk and express themselves to a supportive person in their life.
Do what you can to anticipate and manage their triggers
If you really want to help your loved ones with PTSD, then you should do what you can to anticipate and manage their triggers. A trigger could be anything that reminds your loved one of their trauma and sets off PTSD symptoms, like a flashback.
Military veterans with PTSD, for instance, might be triggered by loud noises that sound like gunfire. Of course, there are internal triggers too, but you can only really help mitigate external triggers for them.
Take some time to understand your loved ones’ triggers and then come up with a joint game plan for how you will respond in the future to their triggers. That plan can help make the situation much less scary for both of you and you’ll be in a better position to help calm your loved one.
Regina Stiffler MS, LPC, LCDC
Licensed Professional Counselor | Owner, Earthsong Counseling, PLLC
PTSD is a fairly common mental health concern. Unfortunately, it is difficult for people to know exactly what to do to support someone with PTSD symptoms. The following tips are four ways to show your support.
Avoid minimizing or invalidating their experiences
Don’t say “that doesn’t seem that bad,” “you knew what you signed up for,” or “at least you survived.” Statements such as these minimize and invalidate the experiences of the person with PTSD.
Instead, if a person shares their experiences with you, thank them for sharing. It took a lot of strength to share something that personal. Comments which validate their experiences are also helpful, such as, “Wow. I can see that really impacted you.”
Respect their boundaries
Someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD has likely already had 1 or more experiences in which their boundaries have been violated. Show them respect by hearing when they are setting boundaries.
For example, if your loved one says they don’t feel comfortable going out in public just yet, don’t push them to go out anyway. Express your concern without being pushy.
Ask how you can help
Each person with PTSD has their own needs. Some may need help reducing triggers and others may benefit from having someone to listen to their story. Other people might not know what you can do to help. In these situations, it can be helpful to just check in periodically to let them know you’re thinking of them.
Encourage them to see a professional
Asking for help from a counselor is hard for many people with PTSD. Let them know you support their decision to get help. There are many treatments that are very effective in reducing PTSD symptoms, but your loved one has to know they won’t be judged for seeing a counselor.
Founder, Traumatology Institute, Tulane University
I am often asked what I would suggest to a family member who has been diagnosed with PTSD? This question was especially popular and frequent when we were studying combat vets, but also families of traumatized family members.
The best thing to say is to ask questions if that is proper and acceptable to ask them
My father and all of my uncles, except one, on both sides of our families served in the military during WWII or Korea. I volunteered with the US Marines out of high school.
Addressing the question of how best to approach family members with PTSD:
- Since the diagnosis of a mental disorder is a determination by a licensed practitioner (e.g. clinical social worker, counselor, psychologist), if you have PTSD or some other psychiatric disorder (e.g., anxiety disorder) of varying degrees of dysfunction.
- Most who are diagnosed with PTSD learn from their traumatic experiences in therapy and gradually reduce the treatment when they are feeling better.
- PTSD is an indication that the person is living with a conflict between reality (e.g., the memory of a traumatic event) and their reactions to it (e.g., ignore, get angry).
- Some with PTSD that followed months and months of heavy combat or intense, dangerous work conditions like it, most often are unable to cognitively processed their experiences and remain on guard emotionally.
- Those with PTSD need what the British Red Cross have found (See: Sarah Davidson: The development of the British Red Cross’ Psychosocial Framework: ‘CALMER.’ She concludes that the “. . . framework seemed to increase participants’ reported sense of confidence in responding to a crisis and their ability to respond and help someone who is distressed and look after their own needs.
- Those receiving training, participants reported feeling less worried about becoming overwhelmed when dealing with a crisis and about making someone more upset. She also found
- That “Providing support in the form of a safe space with empathic/soothing others may have profound effects, fostering a sense of hope, meaningfulness, adaptation, and resilience.
Sonia Parikh, MD
Chief Medical Officer, Savant Care, Inc.
Help them recognize the symptoms
The first step is to help someone recognize the symptoms of PTSD that are manifesting in their lives, such as nightmares, flashbacks, hyperarousal, irritability, anger and avoidance.
The simple act of naming what is happening and having a diagnosis to frame how they feel helps to take the power out of the feelings, and to decrease self-blame. A diagnosis also provides some hope that there can be a treatment plan to feel better.
Once one recognizes their symptoms of PTSD, a person can learn useful grounding techniques to help them “ride the tidal wave of emotion” without acting out and falling apart.
Examples include self soothing techniques like finger tapping, deep diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Distraction techniques can also be very useful such as doing positive activities that feel good like going for a walk in nature, exercise, showering, walking away, taking a nap or calling a loved one.
These techniques will help a person feel more empowered in the face of their difficult surges of emotion since they won’t succumb to problematic behaviors as often.
When a person is ready to look more deeply at their trauma, then work with a therapist can be extremely helpful at a pace that is right. Psychotherapy can help to desensitize the nervous system to the thoughts and images of the trauma and can help a person process and heal emotional wounds.
Psychotherapist | Licensed Clinical Social Worker
If someone has PTSD, they should seek treatment from a licensed professional, but there are things that friends can do to help them!
Here are some suggestions:
- A regular yoga practice has been shown to reduce symptoms of PTSD. Gentle yoga is best. People with PTSD may be triggered by strangers’ touch, so avoid hands-on adjustments.
- If you want to touch a person with PTSD, such as to hug hello or goodbye, take your cue from them. Pay close attention to whether they feel comfortable with this kind of contact. Never surprise them with physical contact as, for example, by putting your hands over their eyes from behind!
- In a public place such as a restaurant, people with PTSD may feel more comfortable sitting with their backs to the wall.
- Be patient. People with PTSD often have rapidly changing emotions. Friends can help by being patient with this.
- Don’t ask people to talk about their trauma. If they want to talk, they will let you know.
- People with PTSD may be made anxious by surprises. This goes big time for splashy ideas such as a surprise party, but it can also apply to more mundane events. People with PTSD often feel most comfortable when there are a schedule and a plan.
- Remember that everyone is different. These are just guidelines. The best way to find out what any individual person needs is to ask them!
Founder and CEO, Physicians Thrive
Provide moral support
Anyone suffering from PTSD needs maximum support at this phase of their life. This support can be given in many forms like letting them speak about their trauma as many times as they want as it is a way of decreasing the mental pressure they have in their mind.
Apart from that, expressing commitment to the relationship despite the partner having this condition also speeds up the healing process as the patient feels more secure.
Give a sense of safety
People with PTSD constantly remain alert fearing some unknown danger. This can be reduced if the partner helps the patient by making a routine for their daily life so that the patient may feel more secure as the patient will know what activities are going to be performed in the whole day.
The most important thing to take care of while living with a patient with PTSD is to manage the triggers that can induce the stress episodes. These may include, sights, sounds, smells, people, locations, or things that recall the trauma.
It can also have significant dates or times, such as anniversaries or a specific time of day that may remind the patient of that traumatic event and make him or her go through the experience again.
Melissa (Reilly) Zawisza, LCSW-S
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Owner, Reilly Counseling, PLLC
Make a plan
Write down examples of your concerns. Read some information about PTSD. Check out local, state, or national websites focused on the specific type of trauma. Make a list of these resources and then listen.
Below is more of an in-depth look at each step:
- Schedule some time to talk about your concerns with your loved one. Find a comfortable place or pick a good time to talk on the phone.
- Before the call, write down your concerns and keep them short.
- Do some research before you have the conversation. Visit local/state or national websites focused on the specific type of trauma. Know what the signs are.
- Be mindful of the timing of the conversation and where you both will be.
- Remind the person you care about them, have some specific examples, and then listen. Trauma is not the easiest topic to talk about it and everyone recovers at a different pace. Remind the person you care about them and are here to help.
- Ask if they want assistance or if they want you to follow up. Share resources with them after the conversation.
- Be prepared for the person to decline any resources or be upset at the moment. On the flip side, be prepared for them to open up to you. Know your boundaries too. You expressed your concern and in most cases, it is up to them. There may be some tears and a wide range of emotions.
- When the talk is over, remind yourself your intentions were good; however, you cannot force someone to deal with their PTSD.
- Don’t forget to thank your friend and follow up if necessary.
Carmen Croucher, LPCC, NCC
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, Croucher Services
There is a large spectrum of what others living without PTSD do or do not know. Many friends and loved ones don’t recognize many of the symptoms for what they are and they may misinterpret behaviors because they don’t understand.
A hallmark of PTSD is avoidance, so the one suffering is not likely to communicate what is happening for them. Pick up a brochure or head to a reputable source on PTSD.
An example may be a loved one that is frequently avoiding events, gatherings or meetups. These things can be anxiety provoking for someone with PTSD. Their sense of trust and safety has been ruptured by their traumatic event. As a loved one, it may feel hurtful to constantly be turned down, but the person with PTSD is just trying to protect themselves and they feel awful that they are not connecting the way they used to.
Pursuing someone with PTSD to come out and talk about it can often trigger the individual and at best they’ll withdraw, at worst they will become angry and it could disrupt the relationship. Individuals with PTSD often socially isolate and having a support system is such an important protective factor. Just be with them and available to them. It’s okay to say “I wish I knew how to help, but I’m here.”
If they haven’t received treatment, it might be helpful to know that there are a few really effective evidence based treatment options to help them heal.
Manage excess adrenaline level
The most logical approach to dealing with any illness is to treat the cause of the problem. So it is with PTSD, a condition that is caused by excessive levels of adrenaline.
Adrenaline is both a hormone as well as a neurotransmitter. Excess adrenaline is the primary cause, if not the only cause, of issues such as anxiety, anger, stress, insomnia, mood swings as well as other concerns – all characteristics of someone with PTSD.
On the positive side, it is fairly simple to manage excess adrenaline by treating the reason the body is producing it. By doing so, significant improvement can be noted within 24 hours.
Most people think of adrenaline as a “fight-or-flight hormone”, released during times of danger. However, this is a rare occurrence. Most people are unaware that the prime function of adrenaline is to provide glucose to the brain when supplies run low.
The brain actually uses more glucose (sugar) per weight than any other tissue in the body. The only other fuel the brain uses is ketones.
By providing glucose in the form of vegetables, and ketones derived from coconut oil and MCT oil, a significant drop in adrenaline can be achieved in 24 hours. The only other requirement is to utilize a natural progesterone cream in a 5% strength (50 mg per pump) available over the counter which will block adrenaline.
Postgraduate Psychiatry Resident, Dalhousie University in Canada
Understand their symptoms, triggers, and help them cool down
Someone with PTSD may experience many unique struggles that could cause interpersonal challenges. The best way to support this person is to familiarize yourself with the symptoms so that you can be understanding when symptoms arise and help to defuse rather than escalate tension.
When people with PTSD experience intrusive thoughts, memories, or flashbacks, they may suddenly shut down. That is especially the case if they have run into someone or something that reminds them of their trauma, and they may want to avoid the situation immediately.
When that happens, be flexible about giving space or changing plans when the person’s distress seems overwhelming. While fighting avoidance tendencies is part of recovering from PTSD, you may not be the right person to assess when someone is ready to face their fears.
Irritability, emotional outbursts, and negative views of themselves, others, or the world are very common symptoms of PTSD. Strive to balance expecting respect with understanding that any hurtful comments or behaviour may have been done unintentionally and with minimal awareness.
Help someone with PTSD cool down in a distressing moment by asking that person to take long, deep breaths in and out with you. You can also ask that person to name every object in the surrounding environment as a distraction technique.
After the crisis has abated and the distressed person has returned to a baseline state of mind, that’s when you can express if your feelings were hurt and how you would like to be treated more respectfully in the future.
Anyone suffering from PTSD may also have a tendency to be easily startled – don’t laugh, don’t spook that person on purpose, and don’t provide excessive pity. Simply let it go and move on.
You can offer to listen if that person wants to talk about trauma, triggers, or distressing symptoms of PTSD, but if that person isn’t comfortable doing so then respect that and enjoy your time together in other ways.
Sandeep Kumar Aggarwal
Founder & CEO, Skaology Medical Group
Be understanding of their situation
The first step to help someone who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) is to be understanding or try to assimilate to their situation. If you don’t understand their struggle then you won’t be able to find the best solutions that can alleviate their situation.
Make an effort to engage with them in conversations in which you will be learning about their experience. With patience and steadiness, allow them to open up to you so they are able to share their experience and indulge you with what bothers them.
Keep in mind that at all times, it is something of great difficulty that implies suffering and uncomfortable memories that they might want to remember. However, in order for their condition to somehow get better, they have to open up about their experience until there is a possibility that the pain lessens over time.
Taking breaks is an important step when engaging with a person who suffers from PTSD. If you sense that the conversation is becoming too intense for your loved one, provide him or her with an opportunity to stop for now and take up the conversation again on another day.
Always be aware of their behaviors
Take action especially if it seems like it’s too negative and intense. If by any means you hear them saying anything in relation to ending their lives and comfiting suicide, immediately but discretely call 911. Always be calm and don’t panic while you call and wait for help to remain with them until it arrives.
Registered Clinical Counselor, Well Beings Counseling
Be a good listener
I don’t think anything works better than listening to someone with PTSD if you actually want to help them. They may have a lot to talk about as they have gone through a lot.
When a person with PTSD is given a chance to talk about anything they have in mind, it helps them a lot in releasing the stress they go through. Never ever overlook the importance of actively listening to someone with PTSD to help them overcome their mental trauma.
A person who’s just been through a traumatic experience may want to talk about it over and over again. The traumatic event’s image may run through their head repeatedly, and talking about it frequently is part of the healing process. They may recall new details every time and feel the urge to share them.
People often tell the victim to stop talking about the past and move on, but that may not work unless they completely get over the event. The best way to help them is to be ready to listen to them talking about the event as many times as possible.
Founder, Never Alone
Be there for them
During my time of crying every morning, I remember letting the hot water from the shower flow over me as I curled up into a ball, saying out loud, “When will this go away” and having a second fear. That fear was telling those nearest to me what was going on and seeing them look at me with pity.
I understood that it wasn’t expected what was happening to me, nor would many others be going through this ever in their lives. But I didn’t want to be treated as a weak individual. I didn’t want to be looked at as a failure.
Having these interactions only confirmed the voices in my head… I would be like this forever. And that wasn’t acceptable.
I can. I will. I MUST beat this.
So when helping those with PTSD, be there for them. When you see a situation that makes you feel for them, do just that, but remember they are human, just like you. Treat them as you would any other functioning member of society.
Give them an open door to step through if they decide to ask for help, but don’t force them into a path of your choosing.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are PTSD Tiggers?
Triggers are stimuli or situations that can cause a person with PTSD to experience symptoms or flashbacks. Triggers are unique to each individual, but some common examples include the following:
• Reminders of the traumatic event: For example, a veteran with PTSD may be triggered by the sound of fireworks, which can remind them of gunfire.
• Sensory reminders: Sounds, smells, tastes, or touch sensations that remind the person of the traumatic event.
• Emotional reminders: Certain emotions, such as fear or anger, can trigger symptoms of PTSD.
• Anniversaries: The anniversary of the traumatic event can also be a trigger for people with PTSD.
• Places: Certain locations, such as the place where the traumatic event occurred, can trigger symptoms.
What Should You Avoid When Helping Someone With PTSD?
Here are some things to avoid when helping someone with PTSD:
• Avoid triggering reminders: Be mindful of things that might trigger the person’s traumatic memories and try to avoid those reminders if possible.
• Don’t dismiss their feelings: It’s important to validate the person’s feelings and experiences. Don’t dismiss their feelings or try to minimize them.
• Don’t pressure them: Don’t pressure the person to talk about their traumatic experiences if they are not ready. Let them take things at their own pace.
• Don’t try to “fix” their problems: While it’s natural to want to help, it’s important to remember that you can’t “fix” someone else’s problems. Your role is to provide support and encouragement.
What Happens During a PTSD Episode?
During a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) episode, the following can happen:
• Intrusive thoughts: Unwanted, recurrent memories of the traumatic event. They’re often accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.
• Avoidance behaviors: Avoiding people, places, and things that trigger memories of the traumatic event.
• Hyperarousal: Increased physical arousal, such as irritability, anger, difficulty sleeping, and increased startle response.
• Negative alterations in mood and cognitions: Depression, guilt, shame, negative self-image, and decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities.
• Dissociation: Feeling detached from one’s surroundings, emotions, and even one’s own body.
• Re-experiencing symptoms: Flashbacks, which are an intense, vivid reliving of the traumatic event, as if it is happening in the present.
• Increased stress response: A heightened physical and emotional stress response to trauma-related triggers, leading to symptoms such as rapid heart rate, sweating, and difficulty breathing.
These symptoms can be distressing and disruptive to daily life, but with appropriate treatment, individuals with PTSD can recover and manage their symptoms.
What Is the Most Effective Way to Treat Someone With PTSD?
The most effective way to treat someone with PTSD depends on several factors, including the individual’s symptoms, personal preferences, and overall mental health. However, the following are some of the most commonly used and evidence-based treatments:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
• CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs.
• It aims to modify maladaptive patterns of thinking and behavior.
• Help the individual develop more adaptive coping strategies.
• CBT has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms, improving functioning, and reducing the risk of relapse.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
• Another form of psychotherapy. It uses eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation to help the individual process traumatic memories and reduce their emotional distress.
• EMDR has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, including anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts.
Prolonged Exposure (PE)
• PE is a form of psychotherapy that gradually exposes the individual to traumatic memories and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
• The goal of PE is to help individuals process and make sense of their traumatic experiences, reducing the emotional distress associated with them.
• PE has been found to be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD, including anxiety, depression, and intrusive thoughts.
• Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are commonly used to treat PTSD.
• SSRIs can help reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts.
• Take note that medication should only be used as an adjunctive treatment, not as a standalone treatment.
In addition to these treatments, some other complementary approaches, such as mindfulness, relaxation techniques, and physical exercise, can also be helpful.
It is important to seek professional help and receive an accurate diagnosis from a mental health professional to determine the best course of treatment for PTSD. A combination of different approaches, such as psychotherapy and medication, may be necessary to achieve the best outcome.
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