While searching for ways to support a loved one with PTSD, it’s important to note that PTSD can present itself differently in each individual. What can help one person may be harmful to another. Be mindful of your loved one’s boundaries and try to create an open line of communication to ensure you support them in a way that is helpful.
Suffering from PTSD can mean having good days, weeks, or months. It also means you could have bad days, weeks, and months. Living with PTSD can mean experiencing many emotions in a short amount of time. Someone with PTSD may go from angry to ashamed, fearful to numb, confused to lonely, overwhelmed to anxious, all within a few hours. You may not know what it feels like to ride these waves of emotions; you’ve likely witnessed your loved one trying to navigate them as they happen. It's normal to feel helpless or confused during these times. It’s difficult to see someone you care about struggle and feel as if you can do nothing to improve it. There is no specific way for you to heal someone's PTSD, but there are ways to support them through it and make the bad days more manageable.
Here are some ways to support your loved one through the bad days:
Make an Effort to Educate Yourself on Trauma Responses
Many responses to trauma may lead you to believe your loved one is upset, angry, or disappointed with you. In reality, their actions are rarely a response to you directly; however, it is likely hard not to take it personally. To better understand your loved one in these difficult situations, it’s essential you learn the different types of trauma responses and how they may present themselves. The five most common trauma responses are fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and find. While these are the most common responses, they are not the only responses. Remember, each individual responds differently and presents differently.
Fight: Your nervous system prepares for a fight. You become angry and frustrated, and your pulse increases.
Can Look Like: Being argumentative, disagreeable, and easily annoyed or frustrated can mimic symptoms of anxiety or panic.
Flight: Your nervous system prepares to run, your heart rate increases, and you feel anxious and out of control.
Can Look Like: Avoiding people, places, or things, walking away during a conversation, wanting to be alone, or needing space.
Freeze: You feel frozen, stuck, unable to move or speak. Your nervous system slows down and shuts off non-essential functions.
Can Look Like: Staying in bed all day, sleeping more than usual, operating on autopilot, being unable to make decisions, or feeling numb.
Fawn: You go into a state of over-agreement, try to be overly helpful and alleviate the threat.
Can Look Like: People pleasing, overly agreeable, lacking boundaries, or avoiding conflict.
Find: Looking for comfort, protection, or soothing from an attachment figure.
Can Look Like: Being overly attached, feeling codependent, seeking happiness from shopping, eating, or anything that brings instant gratification.
Knowing the different ways trauma responses can present themselves allows you to reframe your thinking when your loved ones' actions seem out of the ordinary or are causing conflict. One way to provide support is to take the time and patience to understand that these responses are sometimes out of their control and not directed toward you.
Be Aware of Triggers
Triggers can be a variety of things: sights, sounds, smells. Anything that reminds someone of their traumatic experience can be a trigger. These triggers can activate a trauma response. Some people who have PTSD are very aware of their triggers; in these cases, ask if they would be willing to share their triggers with you. Knowing possible triggers allows you to be mindful of when there is a chance of being triggered.
Sometimes, triggers are a bit more tricky, and your loved one may not know what is triggering them. If this is true in your situation, you have an opportunity to be mindful of their trauma responses and what could have triggered them. Being aware of triggers allows you to anticipate trauma responses and provide support when they need it most.
Validate Their Feelings
PTSD survivors can feel ashamed or embarrassed of their trauma responses and feelings. Another way to provide support is by creating a safe space that will allow them to feel their feelings without judgment or shame. Along with providing a safe space to feel their feelings, you can become a source of validation. Remind them that their feelings are valid, their responses are normal, and their mental health should be a priority and is not shameful.
The best way to know how to support someone you love is to ask them! Every individual will have unique triggers, responses, and coping skills. Take the initiative and start the conversation. Ask how you can support them, when they would like support, and remind them that your priority is giving them the support they’re comfortable with.
PTSD is a learning experience for everyone involved. Give yourself and your loved one time and patience to learn what works and what doesn’t. Mental health is constantly evolving. Triggers can change. Responses can change. Helpful support can evolve. Be kind to yourself and each other, and leave room for growth!