Healthy humans are wired for social and emotional connection. In PTSD, however, our brains stop prioritizing this connection as highly as they normally would, and instead switch to fiercely trying to protect us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This is partly why relationships can feel so difficult or confusing with those who have experienced severe trauma – their brains are often preoccupied, either stuck in a state of fight-or-flight or coming down from it, rather than focusing on their surroundings (and those around them). This is unintentional, and often out of their control.
Whether you have a friend, loved one, or colleague coping with the aftermath of trauma, here are some things you can do to help create an environment that encourages healing (and improves your relationship!).
Familiarize yourself with PTSD.
Do your homework – read about common PTSD symptoms and what they mean. Try to understand what being “triggered” in PTSD really feels like, and recognize that flashbacks, nightmares, irritability, and hyperarousal can be incredibly debilitating and frightening. Remember that someone with PTSD often reacts to something in their environment as if they are actually in serious danger – sometimes, as if the traumatic event is happening all over again. Familiarizing yourself with the disorder’s symptoms and characteristics can expand your capacity for empathy by giving you a frame-of-reference for understanding (and accepting) someone’s behaviours in PTSD.
Sharpen your listening skills.
Being an excellent listener is key for supporting anyone struggling with their mental health, and PTSD is no exception. Those coping with PTSD often feel unloveable, ashamed, fearful, and in some cases, afflicted with survivor’s guilt. They may have conflicting feelings about their experience, their recovery, and their life. All of these things can be hard to talk about, and if you want to be supportive, it is completely imperative that you are an attentive listener and nonjudgmental. Don’t interrupt someone when they confide in you and, if needed, ask clarifying questions that come from a place of compassion rather than judgment. If someone with PTSD comes to you, they need to feel supported, not lectured. Don’t use their self-disclosure as an opportunity to talk about yourself.
Give support, not advice.
Our friends, loved ones, and colleagues will ask for advice when they want it. When they open up to you seeking support, they want a listening ear, not a “fixer.” They don’t want to be told how to “make it better.” For many of us, our knee-jerk reaction when listening to someone talk about their problems is to tell them what we think they should do. People with PTSD (and most people in general) don’t want this. Give support, empathy, and validation – and do not dole out advice unless explicitly asked (and even then, remember that what you would do is not necessarily what someone with PTSD would want to, or should, do).
Don’t take everything personally.
Try to understand trauma and fear in PTSD for what it is – terrorizing and all-consuming. Don’t think about it as exaggerated or unnecessary. Don’t take someone’s frustration, anger, or sadness personally when it seems worse than normal – remember that a lot is operating beneath the surface that you, or even they, may not understand. Their behaviour may not necessarily indicate their true feelings – it is unfair to make assumptions about what is going on for them and what it means about their feelings toward you.
Know their triggers.
Become familiar with their triggers and make an effort to avoid them when you’re together. If loud noises put them on-edge, don’t take them to a fireworks show or a large, loud sporting event. If you’re unsure if something might be triggering for them, ask. If they’re not sure but want to try it out, prepare yourself to leave at any moment. Have a plan for how you will handle this. Don’t physically grab them without asking, talk in a calm voice, and remind them that they are safe. Make sure they know that you are here and that they are supported.
Follow their lead.
Remember that this person knows what they need more than you do – no matter how well or how long you have known them. Pushing an agenda on someone with PTSD risks re-traumatizing them. Recovery is difficult – make it easier on them by following their lead. Make sure they know that social support is there, but do not force them into something they aren’t comfortable with. Withdrawal from friends and family is common in PTSD – remind them that you care about them and want to spend time together.
Trauma is complex and there is no “typical recovery time.” Everyone is different, and those with PTSD will take different amounts of time to learn how to cope with their new realities. People do not simply “get over” or forget traumatic experiences – they learn better ways to cope with them on a daily basis. They grow in their abilities to handle their flashbacks, fears, and other symptoms. Any progress is progress, no matter how small. What may not seem like a big step for you may be a huge accomplishment for them (such as going out alone for the first time since the traumatic experience). Trust that the person wants to get better and is doing everything they can to do so. Remember that as long as you are making yourself available for support, you are helping.
Take care of yourself.
Supporting a friend, loved one, or colleague with PTSD is taxing on everyone, including those in their social support circles. Remember that mental health and trauma are not “competitions,” and that you can still be struggling even when you feel that someone around you has dealt with “much worse.” Remember to put your oxygen mask first – you can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t take good care of anyone else if you’re not taking care of yourself first.
It is normal to have mixed feelings about a loved one coping with trauma-related disorders – getting frustrated with someone does not mean that you don’t care about (or love) them. Give yourself and your loved one, friend, or colleague grace throughout their recovery, and trust that your support is valuable. If you need more clarity on what “trauma” really means, check out our other article here.