If you think someone you know may be suffering with PTSD arming yourself with information is the first step to helping them. After all, the more you know about PTSD the more you will understand your loved one and where they are coming from.
It is also helpful for your relationship with them to know that their emotional responses to you, often, have absolutely nothing to do with you, and everything to do with PTSD.
Create a safe place
Fundamentally people suffering PTSD don’t feel safe. They feel confused, afraid and disconnected. You can really help them by generating a sense of safety for them.
Creating a dependable, predictable daily schedule and structure for them is a great place to start. Keep away from surprises and don’t startle them. Be dependable. Be reliable. Be their rock.
People with PTSD may need some practical support. Offer to help them by taking care of the kids for a few hours, doing the shopping, making meals or driving them to appointments.
Grounding them with a first aid box
When a flashback or nightmare strikes, it can help to ground the person in the here and now. You could do this with a “first aid box”.
Basically a first aid box is a box of grounding techniques. These could include a deck of cards, which you could have them count one by one, holding their focus on the cards, not their memory.
The box could also include a simple breathing technique that you walk them through, or a list of quotes that help them, or photos from happier times.
Work out together what would help them when the flashback or nightmare strikes, and pop these things in their first aid box.
Understand the anger and confusion
They will get angry, they will withdraw and sometimes they won’t seem like themselves at all. But they are still in there. Who they are at times can be masked by the symptoms of PTSD.
Getting angry, or trying to get them to snap out of it simply won’t work. They are suffering a mental health condition, and just like a physical illness, it will take time for them to get better.
Offer to talk or not to talk
It’s a tricky balance, sometimes people will want to talk, and sometimes they won’t. You need to be open to both options.
To gauge whether they want to talk, you could say something like “You seem to be having a tough time, do you want to talk about it?”
If they do want to talk, make sure you are prepared for a range of reactions from them. Remain calm, understanding and open, even if they get upset, angry or scared.
It’s also super important to listen to what they say, don’t interrupt or turn the conversation around to you, let them talk.
Saying things like “you’ll be okay” and “I know how you feel” are also not helpful. Try instead to be empathetic, say things like:
- “That sounds really painful. It must be difficult to go through this”
- “I can hear how upset you are”
- “I understand this must be really distressing”.
If at any time they seem too troubled to continue, show them that you care by setting aside time at a later stage to chat with them.
If they don’t want to talk, don’t push them. Let them open up in their own time.
Take them into the world for adventures
Make sure that they are getting out and about. Take them out for exercise, like a walk or a bike ride. Exercise is a really good for people suffering PTSD and has been shown to actually help lower depression and anxiety levels.
Respect their need for time to themselves, but make sure that you balance this with time spent outdoors, with friends and with family. Being involved in life, and having a support network of people around them can make a huge difference to their recovery.
Anticipate triggers and have a plan in place
Learn what triggers will affect your loved one. These could be places, sights, sounds, smells, weather or people, basically anything that reminds the person of their trauma. Common triggers can also include crowds, hospitals and confined spaces.
Once you know what triggers them, together you can work out a series of grounding exercises to help them through the nightmares, flashbacks and memories that come as a result of their trigger.
Grounding exercises could include:
- Letting them know that what they are experiencing is a flashback, not the real thing.
- Remind them of where they are in the present. Are they in a room? Outside? Or in the car? What day is it? What is the time? Is the sun shining? Is it cold? What does the space look like? Is there carpet?
- Take them through a breathing exercise.
Anger is a common reaction from PTSD sufferers. Know the signs of anger in your loved one. Do they clench their jaw? Do they pace?
Once you see anger rising, it is important that you remain calm. Don’t react to it. Remind them that they are in a safe place. Back off and let them have some space. Do not touch them.
If you feel the anger is rising, remove yourself from their presence. Keep yourself safe. You will do no good by staying. Go for a drive, go for a walk, or go to a movie.
Seek professional help
Getting professional help for someone suffering PTSD is vital, and the sooner they start the process, the better it is for their overall mental health.
Offer to drive them to their local G.P for them to get a referral to a PTSD specialist psychologist or counsellor. Group therapy is also a really great idea.
To find a specialist therapist call the Australian Psychological Service on 1800 333 497.