Guide to Helping a Loved One with PTSD

When someone in your life is living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) it can be an overwhelming and tense situation.  Oftentimes it’s hard to understand what they’re going through and it’s even harder to help them cope.  Fortunately, we have created a guide to helping a loved one with PTSD.  

Table of Contents

We’ve all seen PTSD acted out in the movies.

Mystic River, The Deer Hunter, The Hurt Locker– these are all popular films that focus on very similar experiences with PTSD, and how the condition may affect those with combat, assault, or disaster trauma.

What they don’t address, however, is how a partner or family member can support somebody who lives with the weight of trauma.

For you, PTSD is more than a diagnosis portrayed in the movies. It’s a real-life mental health condition that affects the life of your loved one — and your family — on a daily basis.

If you have a loved one with PTSD, read on. Though this may be a challenging diagnosis for your partner or family member, it’s one that is possible to manage with the right support.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can occur after experiencing a traumatic event. This condition may appear years after the fact. Symptoms can last for months, or even years.

Acute Stress Disorder causes severe nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, fear, and other stress symptoms within the first month after a traumatic event.

PTSD will become apparent after months or years without relief. Though many individuals reeling from a traumatic event may have temporary difficulties with fear, anxiety, anger, depression, guilt, and maintaining routines, those who experience symptoms for months or years will likely be diagnosed with PTSD. Symptoms may come and go over time.

Reasons for PTSD

In the brain, PTSD presents as a stress response creating chronic biological changes in the brain’s neurochemical systems. Because the brain contains survival mechanisms intended to keep you alive, extreme stress makes the brain very sensitive to certain triggers. Somebody with PTSD may struggle with an overactive “alarm system,” a delayed decision-making center, and inaccurate memories.

Anyone can be diagnosed with PTSD at any point during their life. However, there are a few common risk factors that may contribute to the disorder presenting itself under stress.

Causes of PTSD include the following:
  • Combat trauma
  • Childhood physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Sexual violence at any point in one’s life
  • Physical assault
  • Robbery, mugging, or an incident with a weapon
  • Plane crash or car accident
  • Fires, earthquakes, other natural disasters
  • Kidnapping or torture
  • Stressful medical diagnosis
  • History of mental illness
  • Getting hurt
  • Having little or no social support after a terrifying event
  • The compounding of stress after an event such as loss of a family member or partner, extreme pain or injury, or the loss of a home or job

Unlike the movies lead us to believe, PTSD is not isolated to only affecting combat veterans — though 11-30% of veterans may experience PTSD in their lifetime, depending on their service era. Experiencing or witnessing any kind of terrifying event can result in PTSD.

Common Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD will be specific to the individual and may vary during their lifetime — especially if they do not seek the help they need to manage their condition. These symptoms include re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance, negative feelings, and hyper-arousal symptoms.

Re-experiencing Symptoms

Those with PTSD often relive the traumatic event they experienced. These re-experiencing symptoms may include the following:

Traumatic memories are terrifying for the victim and will interfere with their relationship with themselves and others. You may find yourself constantly de-escalating or soothing a loved one who is exhibiting re-experiencing symptoms.

Avoidance

Those with PTSD may tend to avoid people, places, or things that remind them of their traumatic experiences. They will often avoid sharing anything about the experience and will try to block out their own thoughts. Your loved one may admit that they “feel numb,” or that they have forgotten details of the traumatic event.

Negative Emotions

A loved one with PTSD may feel constant fear, depression guilt, or shame. The intensity of these feelings may result in the increased loss of interest in hobbies or things they once enjoyed.

Hyperarousal Symptoms

Hyperarousal symptoms occur when somebody’s body thinks they’re in danger. In this state, the brain panics and puts the individual on high alert for the potential for additional trauma. Hyperarousal symptoms may include the following:

The first step in treatment is to recognize the symptoms. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms above, and be ready to step in with your support if symptoms become uncontrollable.

Living With a Loved One Who Has PTSD

The first step to successfully living with someone with PTSD is to confirm an official diagnosis by a professional. To receive an official PTSD diagnosis by a doctor, a person must present with symptoms for at least 1 month.

The following symptoms must be present for at least 1 month:
  • At least one re-experiencing symptom (flashbacks, nightmares, and frightening thoughts)
  • At least three avoidance symptoms (staying away from people or places, feelings of numbness, and avoiding speaking or thinking about an experience)
  • At least two hyper-arousal symptoms (may include outbursts, insomnia, and tension)
    Symptoms that impede a routine

If your loved one is unable to find relief from their symptoms, it may take a serious toll on your relationship or household. Learning how to help someone with PTSD through a proper diagnosis may be the first step in living your “new normal.”

How to Help a Loved One With PTSD

Those with what are known as “resilience factors” may lower their risk for PTSD.

These supporting factors include the following:
  • Support from family and friends
  • Trauma-specific support groups
  • Guidance from counselors for PTSD
  • Feeling confident in one’s choices
  • Maintaining healthy coping strategies

There are many things that you can do to contribute to these resilience factors. Generally, education, positivity, and respectful behavior are the most supportive considerations.

Learn About PTSD

Learning everything you can about PTSD is your first step in maintaining a supportive role in your loved one’s life. Get your hands on dependable books, articles, and other resources to understand what your loved one may be going through.

Because this active learning practice is intended for your own education, don’t smother your loved one with information quite yet. Bring resources to them when requested — or when it seems like they are ready to talk more about what they need.

Participate in Healthy Activities Together

Exercise has been proven to significantly reduce anxiety and depression. Aerobic exercise, specifically, has been associated with improving PTSD symptoms through desensitization to triggers, enhanced cognitive function, and a decrease in inflammatory markers.

Though there are many options for healthy activities that you can participate in together, even just light, recreational exercise will transform a daily routine into a stimulating recovery tactic.

Enjoy nature. Accompany your loved one on a walk or run around the neighborhood. Do what you can to stay active outside of the home as much as possible.

Listen Patiently and Show Respect

Much of your role will be to listen. Asking questions — and allowing your loved one to respond — will demonstrate respect and concern in a kind and compassionate way. Avoid sounding interrogative or judgemental.

If you don’t feel as if it is the right time for a discussion, write down your questions. Find a quiet time to revisit them, once your loved one is open to a conversation about their experience.

Take Breaks and Give Them Space

Creating a trusting, safe space that allows for time to process your loved one’s experience will minimize triggers and stressors that can exacerbate their PTSD symptoms.

While you may feel the instinct to comfort and care for your loved one, acknowledging their agency as a capable adults will be best for their healing process. Take breaks. Allow for space and privacy.

Acknowledge the Fear

It is paramount that you acknowledge the severe trauma that your loved one has experienced. Belittling or rushing the process will only do further harm.

Though you may not understand the fear — and though it may seem “irrational” or “unnecessary” — the trauma that your loved one experienced was very real.

Learn About Triggers

If your loved one feels uncomfortable in certain environments, activities, or crowd sizes, take their concerns seriously. Understanding what may trigger feelings of hyperarousal or re-experiencing symptoms will create a healthy environment for somebody in recovery.

Suggest Support Groups

Peer support groups will create a space for your loved ones and their peers to feel comfortable talking about PTSD and their trauma. Sharing one’s story can help one to cope with painful memories or accompanying emotions such as anger, shame, guilt, or fear. Talking about these things with somebody who understands may help your loved one to feel better and more confident on their road to relief.

Though you will not be able to attend the support groups yourself, encouraging your loved one to participate in treatment or a support group will lift some of the burden off of your shoulders, and give you time for your own hobbies and responsibilities.

Take Care of Yourself

As PTSD can be seen as a chronic illness, a family member of somebody experiencing PTSD can develop what is known as “caregiver burden.”

Caregiver burden may worsen due to financial strain, symptom management, or the loss of a sexual relationship in an intimate partner.
Don’t forget: You are your own keeper. It is crucial for you to take care of yourself in order to be of any help to a loved one. Make time for self-care, for routine, and for the things you love.

Seek support from outside friendships and hobbies. Living your best life will help to cultivate a healing space for your loved one with PTSD.

What Not to Do

For every few behaviors we encourage, there is one to avoid for the sake of your relationship, and for the mental health of your loved one. This will be a learning process for everyone involved — for that reason, you’ll want to take the recommendations seriously, but avoid punishing yourself for any accidental missteps.

To improve the recovery process, keep in mind the following:
  • Don’t rush a loved one’s coping mechanisms or processes.
  • Don’t minimize the pain or stress they experienced or that they are currently experiencing.
  • Stay present, but don’t insist on providing unsolicited advice.
  • Don’t talk at them; talk with them.
  • Don’t play therapist, as there are licensed professionals that should fill that role.

Don’t worry, you are only human. None of us are going to get all of this right, all of the time. With practice and patience, your loved one will certainly come to appreciate the care and attention that you bring to their healing space.

Children With PTSD

Children can certainly experience PTSD just like adults — though their symptoms will likely look a little different. 

Common PTSD symptoms in children include the following:
  • Severe separation anxiety
  • Bedwetting
  • Acting suddenly nonverbal
  • Aggression
  • Trouble focusing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Degraded school performance
  • Headaches and stomachaches
  • Fixating on death and violence
  • Drawing out the traumatic event on paper or acting it out unprompted during play

It is crucial that a child with PTSD receives treatment as quickly as they begin to exhibit symptoms. PTSD can be a long and painful condition — especially if a child does not receive the support they need.

With children, prioritizing the following behaviors will play a key role in a child’s recovery:
  • Acknowledging reality
  • Seeking therapeutic treatment from qualified pediatric counselors for PTSD
  • Keeping consistent appointments with child’s health care providers
  • Connecting with other parents whose children have PTSD

Because children are so sensitive to trauma, they may develop PTSD even if they’ve only observed something near them or an incident that may have occurred to somebody close to them. Keep this in mind when observing potential PTSD symptoms.

Treatment Suggestions

When it’s time to suggest treatment options, there are a few recognized therapies that can help your loved one manage their PTSD symptoms. Going through each option with a professional is a recommended first step.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) encourages recovery through positive thinking and sharing practice. Because episodic PTSD symptoms are considered to be “unproductive” thought patterns, this kind of talk therapy encourages finding better coping strategies to help their condition.

In CBT, patients work through ways to enhance coping skills, confidence, problem-solving skills, and recognizing distorted facts or reality. Eliminating harmful thought patterns will help an individual become more independent and self-soothing.

A standard CBT regimen will require 8–12 regular sessions of around 60–90 minutes. These sessions are usually once a week. We recommend seeing the same therapist for the majority of these sessions.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a popular treatment for PTSD. It is a kind of psychotherapy that focuses on the body’s sensory inputs to decrease symptoms of hyperarousal and traumatic triggers.

EMDR gets its name from the stimulation and physical sensations that are applied during memory recall in order to thoroughly process the experience. Amazingly, stimulation such as eye movements or hand tapping can dampen the power of traumatic experiences when one is attempting to re-live the experience in recalling their own memories.

  1. Taking client history to determine the current state of the patient’s mental health
  2. Preparation to develop the relationship between therapist and patient, and to explain the EMDR process as well as one’s clinical symptoms
  3. Assessment of initial trauma and the patient’s accompanying symptoms
  4. Desensitization and processing – or, the recounting of memories while a therapist applies EMDR methods like eye movement, tapping, or auditory tones
  5. Installation – or, the identifying of a patient’s most positive memories and beliefs so they can be strengthened into something therapeutic to focus on during stimulation
  6. Scanning through the body of any negative physical sensations
  7. A mental health and stability assessment to close out the EMDR session
  8. Re-evaluation – or, investigating of the EMDR treatments have affected the lingering memory or associated viewpoints

With enough sessions, EMDR helps a patient to cope with their own trauma. This can be a saving grace to the family member who has prioritized their loved one’s recovery over their own self-care.

Acceptance and Community

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches mindfulness tools that allow patients to accept their thoughts and feelings. This type of therapy helps to eliminate feelings of guilt and has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Once sessions are complete, patients should feel a deeper level of self-acceptance.

Acceptance and Community

Systematic Desensitization Therapy is a type of treatment that works to reduce the fight-or-flight response our bodies generate when put in fearful situations. Those with PTSD make great candidates for this kind of therapy, as it helps them to manage negative and unwanted feelings as well as any panic attacks that may accompany certain triggers.

The skills learned during Systematic Desensitization Therapy are tools that can then be applied in real-world scenarios. Once a patient’s confidence has been established through progressive desensitization, they are much more likely to succeed amongst real-life stressors or exposure therapy.

Prolonged exposure therapy is another effective method to combat anxiety and traumatic triggers, though it can be an intense experience. Direct exposure to anxiety-inducing events for a prolonged period of time while also prioritizing cognitive processing can help a patient work through specific “panic loops” that interfere with daily life.

When Suicide Becomes a Concern

Overwhelming symptoms and stressful memories of one’s trauma may contribute to suicidal thoughts. Depression, panic attacks, and substance abuse problems may also increase one’s risk of suicide. These symptoms are all common with those struggling to manage a PTSD diagnosis.

Ensuring that your loved one is receiving the treatment they need will help to minimize the risk of suicide.

Regardless, possible warning signs include the following:
  • Mentioning or fixating on scenarios that involve self-harm
  • Acquiring a weapon
  • Consuming drugs or alcohol
  • Isolation
  • Giving away personal possessions
  • Writing or drawing scenes that contain death or suicide
Recognizing these symptoms can be a terrifying event.
If you think your spouse or a loved one is at risk for suicide, do the following:
  • Speak kindly and patiently to your loved one
  • Ask questions
  • Find out if your loved one has thought of a specific plan to self-harm
  • Remove dangerous objects and weapons from the home

Most importantly, if you recognize the above warning signs in your loved one, call a suicide hotline (available at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255) or 911 immediately. If possible, take your loved one to the hospital. Do not leave them alone.

Supporting Your Loved Ones

Remember, it’s ok to ask for help. The skilled staff and mental health professionals at SoCal MH prioritize long-term behavioral health improvement through evidence-based processes and procedures. Our Orange County PTSD Treatment Center cares deeply about successful patient outcomes and thorough communication with families.

Curious about how specialized treatment could help your loved one with PTSD today? Receive a free insurance verification and consultation from an admission specialist today.

References

  1. VA.gov: Veterans Affairs. (2018, August 07). Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/what/ptsd_basics.asp
  2. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 6 July 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967
  3. “How PTSD Affects The Brain.” BrainLine, 7 May 2019, www.brainline.org/article/how-ptsd-affects-brain.
  4. PTSD in Military Veterans: Statistics, Signs, & Treatments. (2020, October 21). Retrieved from https://socalsunrisemh.com/ptsd-in-military-veterans/
  5. VA.gov: Veterans Affairs. (2018, July 24). Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_veterans.asp
  6. PTSD Treatment in Orange County, CA: SoCal Mental Health. (2021, April 19). Retrieved from https://socalsunrisemh.com/what-we-treat/ptsd-treatment/
  7. VA.gov: Veterans Affairs. (2018, July 24). Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/gethelp/peer_suuport.asp
  8. Default – Stanford Children’s Health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=post-traumatic-stress-disorder-in-children-90-P02579