Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have been through some form of trauma. A trauma is an emotional or physical shock to the body that you see or experience. During this type of event, you think that your life or the lives of others are in danger, leaving you feeling afraid, helpless, or out of control.
Many people, young and old, have gone through traumatic experiences and PTSD can be caused by a myriad of different things such as:
- Witnessing an act of violence
- Witnessing 911 or losing a loved one to 911
- Serving in military combat zones
- Being the victim of domestic violence
- Surviving a severe accident
- Natural disasters such as floods, fires, tornados or hurricanes
Experiencing trauma is not rare. An estimated six of every 10 (or 60%) of men and five of every 10 (or 50%) of women experience at least one trauma in their lives. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and sexual abuse as a child. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.
Going through a trauma however, does not mean you’ll get PTSD. Even though over half of us go through some type of trauma, only a small percent develop PTSD. It’s estimated that 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women (10.4%) twice as likely as men (5%) to develop PTSD.
The timeframe of the actual traumatic experience may be short or prolonged, however the affect of that experience on a person can go on for many, many years. That is what makes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) so challenging.
Additionally, it may not present itself right after the event. Sometimes, it takes years before the signs and symptoms of PTSD show up in someone’s behavior.
For some people, these experiences negatively change the way they perceive the world and their place in it, leaving them to learn how to cope with moving through the world in new, positive ways.
According to MakeTheConnection.net, a website for veterans, there are a wide variety of signs and symptoms that can be shown by someone suffering from PTSD:
- Feeling upset by things that remind you of what happened
- Having nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event that make you feel like it’s happening all over again
- Feeling emotionally cut off from others
- Feeling numb or losing interest in things you used to care about
- Becoming depressed
- Thinking that you are always in danger
- Feeling anxious, jittery, or irritated
- Experiencing a sense of panic that something bad is about to happen
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Having trouble keeping your mind on one thing
- Having a hard time relating to and getting along with your spouse, family, or friends
Here are just a few well-known folks who are coping with the effects of PTSD:
- Whoopi Goldberg – Actress: witnessed two planes crashing in midair as a child and has an intense fear of flying.
- Alan Cummings – Actor: was submitted to severe physical and emotional abuse as a child.
- Oprah Winfrey – TV show host: was raped at age 9 by a family member and abused for a number of years.
- Major General John Cantwell – Australian Arm General: hid his PTSD for 20 years in the army and was promoted to Deputy Chief of the Australian Army.
- Audie Murphy – Combat Soldier: Is the most decorated soldier of WWII and was awarded the Medal of Honor and several purple hearts.
PTSD symptoms can cause a person to act in ways that may be hard for family members to understand. As friends or loved ones, we may see these symptoms in someone we care about but we might not know how to help or be of support.
Those who are coping with PTSD will tell you that it is challenging on many levels. Here are 16 things they would like you to be mindful of as you support them in their healing process:
1. Get Educated. If you see the signs and symptoms of PTSD in someone you care about, learn more about what PTSD is, and what it isn’t, as it relates to your loved one’s experience.
2. PTSD: a Chronic or Curable Condition? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD is a chronic condition that can be managed through various modalities of treatment. With treatment, the effects of PTSD can be reduced and even eliminated, however, memories of the event cannot be erased.
Treatment can help someone regain control over their life from the symptoms of PTSD. It can also help reduce the extent to which symptoms of PTSD interfere with a number of different areas in their life such as work, school, or relationships. That said, it is important to remember that symptoms of PTSD can come back again. Once a person has successfully completed treatment, it does not mean the work is done. It is important that they continue to practice the healthy coping skills they learned in treatment.
3. PTSD is not a choice. Just like other mental illnesses or addictions, it is not something that you “choose” to have or to do to yourself. Use kindness and compassion when someone you know is coping with the PTSD.
4. Let the professionals treat your loved ones. Mental health experts are trained and equipped to handle mental illnesses such as PTSD. They will be able to talk with your loved one with an objective perspective and can utilize the best tools at hand for treating their PTSD. Your job is simply to love them best you can each day.
5. You can’t push, coax, or cajole someone into treatment. This is especially hard for those who are watching folks who are dealing with PTSD. While you can make a suggestion to get treatment or even help them find the resources they need, they have to seek treatment for themselves. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink…”
6. Understand your loved one’s symptoms and the impact of those symptoms on his or her behavior. What might not seem like a “big deal” to you could be a trigger for your loved one. The more you know about these triggers, the more effectively you can modify routines and avoid them.
7. Recognize if they’re having trouble sleeping. Those trauma survivors who get PTSD are even more likely to suffer from insomnia and nightmares. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, of those coping with PTSD, 71% to 96% may have nightmares. If your loved one experiences insomnia or bad dreams, reduce the feelings of stress they experience especially before bed (ex. don’t watch the news before going to bed), reduce or eliminate caffeine in the late afternoon and evening, don’t eat too much before going to bed, and create an environment in which they can sleep well and feel safe.
8. Consider getting a therapy dog. A therapy dog can provide a sense of security, calming effects, and physical exercise that can make a positive difference in the life of those that suffer with PTSD. A therapy dog can also help them sleep better, as the dog can be on guard for them, and wake them up if there is a problem.
9. Don’t ask insensitive questions. Questions about their trauma such as what happened, why it happened or how it happened, can trigger unwanted memories. If a friend or loved one wants to share the experience with you, he or she will do so when the time is right.
10. Honor individual choices. It is important to understand that your loved one’s behavior does not necessarily indicate his or her true feelings. That is, he may want to go out with friends and family but he is too afraid of bringing up upsetting thoughts and memories. If your loved one says no to participating in some event or going somewhere, honor this answer.
11. Anxiety has many faces. Especially for kids, but also for adults, anxiety can look like irritability, and it’s much harder to see it for what it is when that happens, according to Dr. Ruth Hoffman. Rather than responding to their crabbiness with “Where are your manners?” or “You don’t have to be such a grouch about it…” try taking a more compassionate route such as, “Wow, you really seem unsettled, is there something I can do?”
12. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not real. Each person deals with trauma in their his or her own unique way. Let go of your judgment, and reach for compassion instead as you never know what someone has been through or what they’re dealing with on the inside.
13. Meet them where they are. A person with PTSD still has a range of feelings, she just may not be expressed in the same way or fashion as she did before the traumatic experience. This may look like utilizing different coping mechanisms to operate effectively in the world, mechanisms which aren’t as familiar to you. When you can meet her where she is and rather than “where she used to be,” you can lower your stress and hers.
14. Let them be in control of their choices as much as possible. i.e. Don’t make all the choices for them. Conversely, asking them, “What do you want for dinner?” or “What do you want to wear?” (for kids) etc., can be overwhelming because it presents too many choices to think about. If there is an obvious thing, like wanting to wear the same outfit over and over (some clothes feel safer than others), or wanting to sleep in the other room, etc., those are not things to argue about. Another approach might be “What can you wear that will feel safe enough, while I wash this other favorite outfit you’ve had on for three days?”
15. Get the support you need. Support groups and/or couples counseling may be a good way to learn how to communicate with your loved one, as well as cope with his or her PTSD symptoms. They may also help you find the best way to encourage your loved one to get help if he hasn’t already.
16. Treat them normally. If your family member or loved one is getting the treatment she needs, great. The best way you can support her as she goes through the healing process is to treat her normally, i.e. don’t walk on eggshells around her or use PTSD as an excuse to coddle her. Listen and love her as she learn how to effectively manage symptoms of PTSD.
Dealing with the effects a friend or loved one with PTSD can bring many tests and trials to even the best of relationships. It requires learning new things and making changes to old patterns and habits.
The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to offer emotional support, understanding, patience and encouragement to your loved one on his or her road to recovery.
And this is the most valuable gift you can give.