PTSD can destroy your life. Learn how to help yourself or a loved one by knowing how to respond.

Best ways to support someone with PTSD

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It happens in movies, on TV and in books. Perhaps even a family member struggles with it. A soldier returns from Vietnam or the Middle East traumatized by his or her experiences.

While getting PTSD after returning home from a war is a common cause, it’s not the only way it can happen.

Sarah Rhinehart, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Sentara Healthcare, says many other sources of PTSD aren’t widely understood.

The symptoms of PTSD are numerous and more than a little jarring for those who face them. They stem from powerful, troubling and haunting memories. Without proper care, these symptoms may last for a lifetime, and may even worsen as time wears on.

Rhinehart says the most common symptoms include:

  • Intrusive memories of the event
  • Upsetting nightmares about the event
  • Trigger avoidance (steering clear of anything that may cause a PTSD response)
  • Mood instability
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Inability to feel love or other positive emotions

PTSD patients may experience a reaction to an event that threatens either themselves or others with emotions that include persistent fear, helplessness or horror, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

These symptoms, while descriptive of most with PTSD, may not describe every individual. "People are like snowflakes, and everyone processes trauma differently," Sarah says.

While some may consciously experience trigger avoidance, others may do so unconsciously. That could be avoiding a violent TV show that you know will disturb you, or it could be shying away from certain modes of travel.

However, even if your loved one exhibits some of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean he necessarily has PTSD. "The difference between a healthy response to trauma and behavior that points to PTSD is twofold," Sarah explains. "If the symptoms are experienced over the course of several or more months and those symptoms negatively impact your life, you may have PTSD."

What Are Treatment Options?

In addition to antidepressant and antianxiety medication, NAMI points out three psychotherapy options available to those suffering from PTSD. They include:

  • Behavior Therapy. This option typically exposes a person to the feared situation while working on relaxation and coping techniques. This gradually makes her less sensitive to it.
  • Cognitive Therapy. The person with PTSD looks at her own thought patterns and minimizes thoughts that lead to non-productive and negative feelings.
  • Group Therapy. This is for those who would benefit most from being with others who have experienced something similar. Group therapy gives them encouragement and lets them know that what they’re feeling is not uncommon.

Medication taken with these therapies can help manage PTSD symptoms, including depression, insomnia and feeling on edge.

Lend Your Support

Besides the numerous disheartening symptoms a person encounters with PTSD, he may also feel guilt or blame himself for his feelings. This is where emotional support is needed.

“A family member is in a really good position to provide unconditional, positive regard, love and support,” Rhinehart says.

PTSD symptoms may also distract him or make him less likely to visit his physician. In fact, he may want to avoid seeing the physician because he associates the care provider with the traumatic event.

“A friend or family member can be instrumental in making sure a patient stays disciplined in engaging with his physician,” Rhinehart says. This part is very important, because without the proper treatment, it will be very difficult to get past symptoms.

While it is important to communicate with someone who has PTSD, the communication must remain healthy, so the person doesn’t shut down.

Rhinehart describes four good ways to keep communication lines open:

  1. Be willing to listen without interjecting or offering your own commentary.
  2. Help him process his emotions. Try to empathize with what he is feeling, because doing so will help him clearly identify those emotions for himself.
  3. Stay away from negative talk and criticizing.
  4. Remember that the person with PTSD has to be willing to discuss emotions. If that isn’t the case, don’t press.