Helping someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Howard Waring (FRCPsych, FHEA, MBChB), Consultant Psychiatrist based at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchesterin March 2023.

PTSD can be debilitating, and the symptoms of PTSD can be difficult to live with and manage. This isn’t just the case for the person who has PTSD; it can also be incredibly stressful for loved ones, friends and family. The condition can have a huge impact on relationships and day-to-day life.

However, it’s important to understand that while you might feel helpless, there are a number of things you can do to support your loved one.

How to help someone with PTSD

Here, we explore the ways in which you can help someone who has PTSD, and provide tips on how you and your loved one can manage their condition in your day-to-day lives.

We also explore the things you can do to look after yourself as you support a loved one with PTSD.

Learn all about PTSD

One of the most useful things you can do is learn as much as you can about PTSD. This includes the signs of PTSD and how treatment for PTSD works. By learning as much as you can about this mental health condition, you can begin to develop an understanding of why your loved one behaves the way they do, and the kinds of emotions they’re experiencing. This will put you in a better position to be able to support them.

It’s also useful to try and identify your loved one’s specific triggers and warning signs. Triggers tend to include specific situations that have a resemblance to the situation in which the trauma occurred. For example, their PTSD symptoms may be triggered by things like:

  • Certain smells
  • Loud noises
  • Crowds
  • People arguing
  • Flashing lights
  • Significant dates or seasons
  • Being in places where they feel confined or ‘trapped’

There may also be some warning signs that they’re struggling, or experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks. Warning signs might be things like:

  • A change in their mood. They might become anxious, angry, upset or irritated. They might also show signs of depression or have thoughts of harming themselves
  • A change in their levels of energy. They might become easily distracted or be hyper alert all of a sudden
  • A change in their work performance. They might miss deadlines or produce work that’s not up to their usual standard

By getting to know their specific triggers and warning signs, you’ll be able to spot when they’re struggling and anticipate situations that might be difficult for them. This will help you to support them when they need it most.

If you're concerned about your loved one’s immediate safety, call 999 or visit your nearest A&E department. You can find out more on our crisis support information page.

Keep communicating

It’s important to keep lines of communication open with someone who has PTSD. Try to check in with them regularly and get a feel for how they are. However, don’t pressure them to talk if they don’t want to. Simply checking in with them shows that you’re always there for them and that they don’t have to suffer in silence.

If they do want to talk to you about what they’re going through, listen to what they have to say. Even if they want to talk about the same things over and over again, it’s important for you to be receptive and understanding, because this might be really important for them and their healing.

how to talk to someone with ptsd

Avoid judgement

If you’ve never experienced PTSD before, it can be difficult to understand what your loved one is going through, or empathise with how they’re feeling. However, it’s really important that you respond to them in a non-judgemental way.

Don’t question why they didn’t do things differently around the time of the traumatic event, or suggest that they should just try to forget about it. Trauma and PTSD are unique to each individual so it’s important to stay open minded and support them the way they need you to, without judgement.

Be patient

PTSD is a complex illness and recovery takes time. That’s why it’s really important to be patient with your loved one and don’t put pressure on them to get better quickly. Even if the healing process feels long-winded and they’re going through the same things over and over again, stick with them and support them.

Help them to find professional support

While the above tips can help manage their symptoms day-to-day, PTSD often needs professional support. The first port of call might be your loved one’s GP. You could encourage them to make an appointment and offer to go along with them for moral support. Their GP will be able to assess their history and symptoms, and recommend further treatment.

Private providers, like Priory, offer comprehensive and evidence-based treatment for PTSD. This will be tailored to each person and is likely to include a combination of:

  • Talking therapies (such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT))
  • Specialised therapeutic techniques (such as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR))
  • Medication to help manage symptoms, if needed

Find out more about the types of therapy and the mental health treatment options that we offer.

Look after yourself

Supporting someone with PTSD can be overwhelming and draining. That’s why it’s so important to look after yourself too.

Try and set some time aside every day to do something you enjoy or find relaxing. This might be having a hot bath, reading a book or listening to music. Exercise has many great benefits for your mental health, and you should try to eat well and get enough sleep too. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so looking after yourself will put you in a better position to look after your loved one.

Also, it’s important to recognise that you might have mixed feelings towards your loved one sometimes. You might feel frustrated and resentful, and just want a bit of ‘normality’. This, in turn, might make you feel guilty. However, try not to beat yourself up about this. These feelings are entirely normal and don’t mean that you’re a bad person.

What to say to someone with PTSD

There are a number of things you can say to someone who has PTSD, to help them to cope with their emotions and feel better. You could:

  • Regularly tell them that you love them, you’re committed to the relationship and you’ll always be there to support them
  • Talk about the future and make exciting plans
  • Tell them that you have confidence that they can recover and you’ll be with them every step of the way
  • Reinforce to them that they’re safe and secure
  • Emphasise their strengths, qualities and successes
  • Validate their feelings – what they’re experiencing is very real to them. Don’t be dismissive or make assumptions

Tips for living with someone who has PTSD

As well as the tips above, there are a number of practical things you can incorporate into your everyday life, to help with your loved one’s PTSD.

Plan ahead for a crisis

It can be useful to discuss with your loved one the actions you can both take, in the event of a crisis. Sit down with them when they’re feeling relatively well, and talk about how you can help if they’re ever in crisis. This might include things like:

  • Making a list of professionals and support organisations you can draw upon when your loved one is struggling. These may include their GP, helplines such as Samaritans or your local Mind charity
  • Encourage them to make a self-care box – this is when they fill a box with objects that will help to distract and comfort them if they’re ever in difficulty
  • Make a list of symptoms to look out for and triggers to be aware of
  • Make a list of any medications they might be taking, including dosage

Ask them what they need from you

It’s important to establish with your loved one exactly what they need from you on a daily basis, to help them feel safe. For example:

  • Would they prefer to have their personal space, or do they want regular affection, for example, hugs, holding hands?
  • Would they find it useful if you kept in touch with them whenever you went out, letting them know where you are and when you’ll be home?
  • Do they want predictable routines in their day-to-day life? If so, how do they want you to fit into this routine?

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