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How To Help A Loved One Struggling With PTSD

July 15, 2015

When someone you love suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can be difficult to know what to do to help them. People who have experienced a traumatic event such as crime, war, or natural disasters are often diagnosed with PTSD and may experience uncontrollable, intrusive memories, emotional numbness, and anxiety, amongst other symptoms.

Uncontrollable, intrusive memories are memories of the traumatic event that come in bursts that are unwanted and can last for minute to hours. The person may become flooded with terror or horrific, haunting images that feel real. Often the trauma will come back in fleeting ways, such as vague sense that something is wrong. This shows itself in flashbacks that can be terrifying for loved ones if they manifest themselves when the person is awake. Flashbacks can also occur as nightmares and make it very difficult for your loved one to sleep.

Emotional numbness is related to the person with PTSD feeling like a shadow of their former selves. They may have no feeling or feel numb and detached. This is a coping mechanism that helps people with PTSD to manage their daily lives while not re-living the trauma they experienced. However, it can also be damaging to relationships. People with PTSD are also often anxious, which includes irritability, inability to concentrate, being easily startled, and worried about threats or threatening individuals.

So what can you do to help your loved one if they are experiencing any of these symptoms? The three tips below can make a world of difference for you and your loved one:

Ask your loved one how you can help:

Watching your loved one have a flashback can be sudden, sometimes violent, and harmful, both emotionally and physically. Do not ask your loved one about details of the flashback because this could trigger it to occur again. Instead, ask your loved one what you can do to minimize or prevent flashbacks. Perhaps he or she would like to be embraced, or does not want to be touched at all. If your loved one needs it, let them know that you are available to listen. You must have emotional resilience to become an effective listener without judging or attempting to solve your loved one’s problems. Ask what your loved one needs from you and work out a plan to address those needs that works for both of you. If you are having difficulty coping with your loved one’s flashbacks, develop boundaries that will help you to stay healthy and feel safe. Let your loved one know those boundaries. If ever flashbacks or your loved one become violent, seek safety first. Call the police or find a safe place to go.

Learn about your loved one’s triggers:

Your loved one may have seasonal reminders during the time of year when the trauma occurred which make them uneasy and/or terror-filled. Certain people, places, or noises may bring back terrible images. It’s ok to ask your loved one about their triggers. Find out what their triggers are so you can help them to avoid those triggers or have a plan in place if those triggers present themselves. For instance, ask your loved one what they need to calm down and work to provide those calming mechanisms if the triggers occur.

Be patient:

Your loved one may be emotionally detached and distant, which can be frustrating and hurtful. The best advice is to give the trauma time to heal. Don’t push intimacy, instead, encourage therapy. You may also ask your loved one if you can visit the therapist with them. Don’t be afraid to ask the therapist what is going well, what is taking time, and what to expect in terms of recovery. It can take time to overcome emotional numbness. But with therapy and time, it’s possible.

The VA has a website with information on how to help your loved one with PTSD. Prevail Health also has a mental health program tailored to address the clinical and demographic needs of veterans and individuals. This includes PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The website can be found at VetsPrevail.org and iPrevail.com.

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