If someone you love or care about has PTSD, you may want to help, but not know how. Research has shown that support from family and friends is one of the most important elements in helping someone overcome PTSD. If fact, having good emotional support initially after the traumatic event massively reduces the risk of developing PTSD in the first place.
So first and foremost, if someone close to you has been through trauma, providing emotional support from day one is the best thing you can do to PREVENT them developing PTSD in the first place. Be there. Physically be there with them and support them through the early days.
If they have developed PTSD, there are many ways you can help them.
Firstly, ask them how you can help. And listen to the answer. Realise they may try to push you away, and don’t take it personally. Remind them that you are there, and they can talk to you any time. And when they call, BE there. If you fob them off, they won’t ask again, and you’ll have made things exponentially worse.
Don’t stop them from talking. (“You need to stop thinking about it, or you’ll never get over it.”) They may need to talk about the event over and over, to work through the intense emotions. Telling them to stop talking about it or thinking about it will only make them feel more isolated and alone, and unsupported. It will take time and you may get tired of hearing about it, but it will lessen in time, as will the feelings of distress around the event.
Equally, don’t force them into talking. Don’t emotionally blackmail (“If you won’t talk about it, I can’t help you.”). Let them know that you are there to listen, whenever they need to talk. Encourage them to open up. And when they do start talking, don’t change the subject, let them talk as long as they need. If you don’t know what to say, just let them know you care about them. (“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry that happened to you, but I’m here and I care and I’m not going anywhere.”)
Don’t minimise their experience, tell them it could have been much worse, or that other people have it much worse. Don’t tell them they should be over it by now, or that they should be able to cope and move on.
Be patient. Often people get better, and then relapse. They may appear fine and then something will ‘trigger’ them, and you may feel like you’re back at square one, which can be very frustrating. But each attack will likely become less severe, and eventually they won’t happen at all. Try to stay positive, calm and supportive.
Educate yourself about PTSD. Each person is different, but the better you understand the symptoms and disorder in general, the better equipped you will be to help.
Take care of yourself as well. If your loved one is demanding a lot of your time and emotional energy, make sure you take time to look after your own needs, and have your own support systems. Sometimes you might feel angry and tired or sick of their problems. Realise its normal to feel that way, and don’t feel guilty about those feelings. Take some time out when you need to, but do not abandon them.
Encourage them to seek professional help, if they aren’t already. But not to the exclusion of your love and support. If you say to someone who is suffering PTSD “I think you should go talk to a psychologist about this” what they might hear is “I don’t want to listen to this, go talk to someone else”. Remember to remind them that you are here too, that you are an available ear, in between psychological sessions, but a professional has the skills and strategies to help them recover.
Try to keep life as ‘normal’ as possible. Help them get back into the things they used to enjoy. If you used to go to gym together, invite them to gym. Pick them up and take them to a class if necessary. if they can’t face the crowds at gym, offer to go for a walk with them, and tell them you’ll go to gym with them when they are ready.
If you used to do lunch at a café every Thursday fortnight, invite them. Keep inviting them, even if they keep saying no. If the café is too hard and open and public, bring take out to their house on that Thursday. Keep the rituals of your previous life intact as much as possible, and retain that normality to their lives. And if they can’t do those things anymore (right now) remind them those things are still waiting for them when they are ready.
Work on their timeline. And know they will get better. Of course ‘better’ can mean different things to different people, some people may always have some symptoms from the traumatic event, but with the right support, they don’t have to interfere with living a normal, happy life.