What To Do When You Love Someone With PTSD

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Learning how to support someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a journey of its own that can involve a steep learning curve and some personal growth. It’s important to remember that recovery from PTSD is possible, and people can go on to live meaningful and purposeful lives.

In this article we explore five things that can be helpful to work on if you love one of the brave souls trying to find their way through this difficult condition.

1. Refrain from saying “That’s in the past” or, “You just need to move on”

Well-meaning family say things that are often problematic in their desperation to help their loved one.

They may inadvertently dismiss how desperately the person is usually trying to move on, and how challenging that can feel for them. A threatening past is viscerally alive in the body and mind of PTSD sufferers, in ways that others can scarcely imagine. In PTSD, the line is blurred between past and present, then and now, and the person affected has little to no control until traumatic memories are properly integrated. You can support them attempting to deeply appreciate and understand how they are impacted.

2. Accept that the person will never be “like they used to be”

One of the anguished mothers/fathers/spouses often say is “I just want the old (name) back”. But the pressure from loved ones to return to a former state of being, despite having endured shattering, life-altering experiences, is often too much to bear. The life before PTSD is gone and the person has been inexplicably altered. Both are prone to being romanticised, longed for and held up as the gold standard of what recovery would look like, but people buckle under pressure to return to a state of being that has been lost. Hope lies in accepting that recovery doesn’t look like what went before. Recovery involves both the affected person and those that love them, grieving the loss of what was and accepting what is.

3. Look past the ‘crazy’ and see the wisdom in the person’s behaviour

Many behaviours that trauma survivors engage in can look ‘crazy’ to those around them, but recovery rests in being able to see the wisdom in them. Behaviour that may seem non-sensical to family members may be performing an important function for the affected person, holding them together or even keeping them alive until a more ideal coping strategy can be found. From those who cut themselves just to feel something, to those who push everyone close to them away because they are desperately trying to conserve enough energy so they can just keep going, PTSD survival strategies can be seen to have an incredible wisdom at their core. PTSD has an artful way of calling its host’s attention back to the exact places that require healing. Families can be helpful when they refrain from dismissing the person’s survival-oriented behaviour as crazy.

4. Look at the ways living in Fight/Flight/Freeze already existed in the family 

When adult children enter the military or emergency services and leave with PTSD, it can seem obvious to blame the service they served with. But whilst both the military and emergency services are culpable, it is also true that people have pre-existing vulnerabilities. When people come to their service from families where the amount of stress faced over the generations exceeded the family’s coping resources, family life is impacted by the stress response. When states of fight/flight/freeze govern family life, functioning is prone to becoming rigid, less responsive and more reactive. There is heightened sensitivity to threat, and less resources and flexibility to deal with it. When family members are able to see the ways they might habitually be frozen or numb, or in an elevated fight or flight response, it can be a very powerful message to the PTSD sufferer that the problem didn’t start with them. And when someone close to the affected person works on settling their fight/flight/freeze responses, it can be hugely stabilising and grounding for all.

5. Ditch the advice – approach with humility, curiosity and an open mind

All too often family and friends approach PTSD sufferers with unsolicited advice. Giving advice is how many of us try to show we care, but is often driven by anxiety, and designed to relieve the anxiety of the advice-giver, while shifting anxiety in the direction of the person receiving it. Especially in the case of veterans and first responders, assume that there is no way you can possibly comprehend what they’re going through. Work on cultivating humility, understanding you don’t have the answers for their life and struggle. This is a real challenge for most people, because there is significant tension in resisting the urge to have all the answers. However, it’s precisely in that place of willingness to sit in our own humility, curiosity and openness, that we become truly helpful.

Byron Private offers an effective pathway to recovery for those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other common challenges such as addictions and mental health. If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out to our clinical team for a confidential discussion on 02 6684 4145.