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PTSD and relationships - how to support someone you care for

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that arises as a result of an individual experiencing or witnessing a deeply traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. It can be extremely difficult to cope with and doesn’t only impact on the person who has experienced the trauma, but also on those who are closest to them.

It can be hard to watch someone you love struggle with PTSD, which is why it’s so important to understand the ways in which you can support them. In this blog, we explore PTSD in more detail and outline how you can help someone to cope.

What is PTSD?

PTSD can be defined as an intense and long-lasting emotional response to a deeply distressing event or a series of events. Traumatic events may include:

  • Being the victim of or witnessing abuse/violence
  • Being involved in or witnessing an accident (e.g. a car accident)
  • Being involved in or witnessing catastrophic events (natural events such as earthquakes or man-made events such as war/terrorism)
  • Physical injury (e.g. amputations, disability)
  • Terminal illness
  • Bereavement

Some people experience the symptoms of PTSD immediately following the traumatic event, whereas in others, symptoms can take weeks, months or even years to manifest. The most common signs and symptoms of PTSD include:

Hyperarousal symptoms:

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Vivid nightmares and flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Intense physical responses to flashbacks e.g. rapid heart rate, breathing difficulties, excessive sweating
  • Experiencing distress when reminded of the traumatic event

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Avoiding activities and situations that could trigger memories of the traumatic event
  • Unable to deal with painful emotions such as grief
  • Loss of interest in hobbies that were once enjoyed
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling emotionally ‘numb’
  • Poor concentration

Without expert psychiatric treatment, PTSD can lead to a range of long-term problems including:

How can you support someone with PTSD?

Listen to them

It’s important to let your loved one know that you’re always there to support and listen to them. Encourage them to open up to you about how they’re feeling and how the trauma is impacting on their day-to-day life, but don’t pressurise them into doing so – let them know that they can talk to you at their own pace and you’ll always be ready to listen.

Don’t be judgemental

If your loved one does open up to you about how they’re feeling, it’s so important to avoid being judgemental. If you’ve never experienced trauma or PTSD, it can be hard to fully understand what they’re going through. However, trauma is subjective; everyone experiences it differently and what may be traumatic for one person may not be traumatic for someone else. What your loved one is experiencing is very real to them and it’s crucial not to dismiss what they’re going through, make assumptions, or try and compare it to how you think you would feel in their situation.

Learn about their symptoms and triggers

Because each person experiences PTSD differently, it’s important to try and understand the symptoms that your loved one is experiencing, and the triggers that can make their symptoms worse or ‘set them off’. For example, your friend or relative may become distressed in large crowds of people or when they hear loud noises, and these situations could cause them to experience symptoms such as panic attacks and flashbacks. By understanding their triggers, you can help them to cope in situations that cause them to become anxious, respect their boundaries and personal space, and feel more prepared if they do become distressed and upset.

Look after yourself

When you’re supporting someone who’s struggling with PTSD, it’s important to look after yourself too and take steps to regulate your own emotions and mood. You could try practising mindfulness as a way of coping with any negative thoughts and feelings that you may be dealing with, or engaging in relaxation activities such as reflexology or massage which have been found to be effective in helping to release pent-up negative emotions. By looking after yourself effectively, you are more likely to have the emotional energy to support your loved one through their difficulties.

Help them to seek professional support

Without expert support, the distressing symptoms that are associated with PTSD may become gradually worse over time and continue to have a destructive impact on an individual’s health, wellbeing and general quality of life. That’s why it’s so important for your loved one to seek help if their PTSD is becoming difficult to manage or is having a detrimental impact on their daily life.

You could try to encourage them to speak to their GP about how they’re feeling, and even offer to go with them to support them. Their GP will be able to advise on next steps for treatment.

Blog reviewed by Hannah Raine-Smith, Integrative Therapist and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) Practitioner at Priory Hospital Bristol

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