How to Support a Loved One with PTSD
Approximately 8 percent of Americans — which works out to around 24.4 million people — suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (also known as PTSD) at any one time.
Supporting a friend or loved one who is struggling with PTSD isn’t easy, but it’s important to encourage them to get help and show them that they have your support.
When left untreated, PTSD can become incredibly debilitating and can contribute to other serious issues like drug abuse, self-harm, and alcoholism.
If you want to help someone with PTSD but aren’t sure where to start, these tips can help.
Do Your Research
The more you know about post-traumatic stress, the better able you’ll be to support your loved one and advocate for them when they need your help the most.
It’s easy for people suffering from PTSD to feel isolated. By taking the time to learn about their experience and what they’re going through, you can help minimize these feelings. Often, simply knowing that someone else understands their situation can make a huge difference for someone with PTSD.
But, Don’t Try to Stand in for a Professional
That being said, having researched PTSD does not make you an expert on the condition. It also does not make you qualified to stand in for a therapist or mental health professional.
As a friend or family member, your goal is to provide support, not to diagnose or offer any kind of treatment options.
If your loved is not working with a professional, encourage them to find someone who has experience and has been trained specifically to work with people suffering from PTSD.
One of the worst things you can say to a person with PTSD is some version of “let it go” or “you need to move on.” If you were thinking of sending this kind of message to your loved one, stop. Don’t you think they’d move on and let their trauma go if they could?
Their nervous systems literally will not let them do this.
There’s no timetable for overcoming trauma. Trying to rush your loved one through the process is insensitive and could end up making their situation worse.
Emphasize the Importance of Downregulating
While you shouldn’t try to act as a therapist for your loved one, it can be helpful to understand some therapeutic techniques that can be used to help them when their therapist is not available. This can be especially helpful if your loved one lives with you, or if you spend a lot of time together.
During your research on PTSD, you’ll probably come across the terms “downregulation” or “self-regulation.” This is a foundational component of trauma therapy, and it’s something you can encourage your loved one to do if they’re struggling or have been triggered.
Before someone with PTSD can start talking about and working through their experiences, they need to learn to downregulate their nervous system and remain calm when they’re triggered.
If they can’t downregulate, their symptoms are more likely to get worse and they’ll become more overwhelmed.
Your loved one should learn specific downregulation techniques from a trained therapist. But, some basic methods that they might benefit from include:
- Mindful breathing — taking a certain number of breaths (5,10, 50, however many are necessary) while focusing on the sensation of air entering and leaving the body.
- Sensory input — in the same way that certain smells, sights, or sounds can trigger people with PTSD, other forms of sensory input can help calm them down. Listening to a specific song, inhaling a familiar (positive) scent, or petting an animal are all good options.
- Taking in the environment — when they’re going through a particularly difficult experience, it can also be helpful to encourage your loved one to take in their environment and start listing details of what they notice. This can include pointing out different colors or identifying different sounds or smells.
Create a Safe Place
If your loved one lives with you — or if you’re together often — it can be helpful to take steps to make your home a safe place for them.
If they are triggered by loud noises and need the volume on the television turned down, honor that need. On the flip side, if they struggle with silence and need background noise at night to feel secure, honor that need as well.
It’s also important to respect your loved one’s space, too. They may need extra personal space and solitude to regroup, especially after a long or difficult day. Make sure they know you’re available and are there to help, but do your best not to be overbearing — remember, be patient, and give them the space they need to calm down and feel safe.
Take Care of Yourself
Finally, make sure you’re practicing good self-care, too. When you’re busy providing support to a loved one, it’s important to remember that you can only serve others when you’ve taken care of yourself, first.
If you go too long without practicing self-care, you’re likely to end up feeling burned out. You may even start to resent your loved one for something that isn’t their fault.
As you can see, self-care is essential — and, for the record, it’s definitely not selfish. Take a night for yourself to go to a workout class, go out with a friend, or see a movie. Do whatever you need to recharge and preserve your own mental health.
Caring for a loved one with PTSD isn’t easy, but these support tips can help. Keep them in mind and, above all else, remember to be patient and present with your loved one.
Even if you make mistakes or say the wrong thing from time to time, the most important thing you can do is be there for them and let them know they can trust you to act in their best interests.
There’s no need to be perfect. If your loved one knows that you’re doing your best and are actively learning and trying to improve, they’ll be glad to have you in their corner.