10 Tips for Understanding Someone with PTSD
PTSD makes communication difficult. Many survivors can’t find the words to express what they’re feeling. Even when they do, it’s very normal for them not to be comfortable sharing their experience. Elements of shame, fear, anger, guilt and grief often get in the way of a calm, focused discussion.
Friends and family (and anyone else who is not the source of the PTSD but is standing by while someone attempts to heal) need something that translates PTSD language. Armed with knowledge, insight and awareness you’ll have an easier time knowing how to react, respond and relate to your PTSD loved one during the healing process. The more you appreciate things from the PTSD perspective the more helpful and supportive you can be. Now is the time for empathy, compassion and patience.
The list below will give you an overview of things to understand. For more in-depth information – plus content specifically geared for you, the caregiver – check out the free archives of our radio show, CHANGING DIRECTION, which features professionals and experts weighing in on what you need to know about PTSD and your role.
#1 – Knowledge is power. Understanding the process of a triggering event, the psychic reaction to trauma, the warning signs and symptoms of PTSD, and available treatment options for PTSD allows you to help recognize, support and guide your PTSD loved one toward diagnosis, treatment and healing.
We need you to be clearheaded, pulled together and informed.
#2 – Trauma changes us. After trauma we want to believe —as do you—that life can return to the way it was; that we can continue as who we were. This is not how it works. Trauma leaves a huge and indelible impact on the soul. It is not possible to endure trauma and not experience a psychic shift.
Expect us to be changed. Accept our need to evolve. Support us on this journey.
#3 – PTSD hijacks our identity. One of the largest problems with PTSD is that it takes over our entire view of ourselves. We no longer see clearly. We no longer see the world as we experienced it before trauma. Now every moment is dangerous, unpredictable and threatening.
Gently remind us and offer opportunities to engage in an identity outside of trauma and PTSD.
#4 – We are no longer grounded in our true selves. In light of trauma our real selves retreat and a coping self emerges to keep us safe.
Believe in us; our true selves still exist, even if they are momentarily buried.
#5 – We cannot help how we behave. Since we are operating on a sort of autopilot we are not always in control. PTSD is an exaggerated state of survival mode. We experience emotions that frighten and overwhelm us. We act out accordingly in defense of those feelings we cannot control.
Be patient with us; we often cannot stop the anger, tears or other disruptive behaviors that are so difficult for you to endure.
#6 – We cannot be logical. Since our perspective is driven by fear we don’t always think straight, nor do we always accept the advice of those who do.
Keep reaching out, even when your words don’t seem to reach us. You never know when we will think of something you said and it will comfort, guide, soothe or inspire us.
#7 – We cannot just ‘get over it’. From the outside it’s easy to imagine a certain amount of time passes and memories fade and trauma gets relegated to the history of a life. Unfortunately, with PTSD nothing fades. Our bodies will not let us forget. Because of surging chemicals that reinforce every memory, we cannot walk away from the past anymore than you can walk away from us.
Honor our struggle to make peace with events. Do not rush us. Trying to speed our recovery will only make us cling to it more.
#8 – We’re not in denial—we’re coping! It takes a tremendous effort to live with PTSD. Even if we don’t admit it, we know there’s something wrong. When you approach us and we deny there’s a problem that’s really code for, “I’m doing the best I can.” Taking the actions you suggest would require too much energy, dividing focus from what is holding us together. Sometimes, simply getting up and continuing our daily routine is the biggest step toward recovery we make.
Alleviate our stress by giving us a safe space in which we can find support.
#9 – We do not hate you. Contrary to the ways we might behave when you intervene, somewhere inside we do know that you are not the source of the problem. Unfortunately, in the moment we may use your face as PTSD’s image. Since we cannot directly address our PTSD issues sometimes it’s easier to address you.
Continue to approach us. We need you to!
#10 - Your presence matters. PTSD creates a great sense of isolation. In our post-traumatic state, it makes a difference to know that there are people who will stand by us. It matters that although we lash out, don’t respond and are not ourselves, you are still there, no matter what.
Don’t give up, we’re doing our best.