Supporting someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) requires empathy, understanding, and patience. PTSD can significantly impact a person's life, causing distressing symptoms and affecting their relationships, work, and overall well-being. Here are some strategies to help someone with PTSD to reduce reactivity, hypervigilance, and other symptom reduction suggestions:
- Create a safe and non-judgmental environment: People with PTSD often experience heightened anxiety and may feel constantly on edge. Make sure they feel safe around you by creating an environment where they can openly express their thoughts and emotions without fear of judgment or criticism.
- Educate yourself about PTSD: Understanding the symptoms, triggers, and challenges associated with PTSD will help you provide informed support. Research reputable sources read books, or attend workshops to gain knowledge about PTSD. This will enable you to approach the situation with compassion and avoid potential triggers.
- Be a good listener: Active listening is crucial when supporting someone with PTSD. Allow the person to share their experiences, thoughts, and emotions at their own pace. Practice active listening by giving them your full attention, maintaining eye contact, and validating their feelings. Avoid interrupting or offering unsolicited advice unless they explicitly ask for it.
- Respect their boundaries: Individuals with PTSD may have specific triggers (physiological autonomic responses) or situations that they find overwhelming. Respect their boundaries and avoid pushing them to discuss or confront anything that makes them uncomfortable. Let them know that you are there to support them, but also give them space when needed.
- Offer practical assistance: PTSD symptoms can sometimes make it challenging for individuals to handle daily tasks. Offer practical support, such as helping with household chores, running errands, or accompanying them to appointments, if they are comfortable with it. These acts of kindness can alleviate their stress and make them feel cared for.
- Encourage professional help: While you can provide support, it is essential to recognize that PTSD often requires professional treatment. Encourage the person to seek therapy or a trauma specialized in mental health experienced in treating PTSD, a psychiatrist, group, and other resources available in your local community. Offer to assist them in finding resources or accompany them to appointments, if they desire.
- Be patient and understanding: Recovery from PTSD is a process that takes time and can have setbacks. It is crucial to be patient and understanding, as the person may have good and bad days. Validate their progress and encourage them to focus on self-care and self-compassion.
- Take care of yourself: Supporting someone with PTSD can be emotionally challenging. Remember to take care of yourself and seek support from friends, family, or professionals when needed. Self-care and maintaining your mental well-being will enable you to provide better support to others.
It's important to note that everyone's experience with PTSD is unique, especially because each person's trauma experience and state of mind, development, epigenetics, and contributing factors are all a part of developing PTSD. Therefore, adapt your support to the individual's needs and ask, clarify, and notice non-verbal and verbal congruence. Discuss and challenge behaviors, not the person. Traumatized individuals can internalize and be suffering from survivor's guilt, shame, compounding losses, infractions, and a cumulation of moral injury deeply affecting their sense of self or their "core."
Remember, everyone's experience with PTSD is unique, so it's essential to adapt your approach based on the individual's needs and preferences. By offering support, understanding, and patience, you can play a valuable role in assisting someone with PTSD on their journey toward healing and recovery. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can manifest in various ways and may differ from typical anger, rage, frustration, irritation, fear, hypervigilance, and difficulty calming or sleeping.
Here are some common signs and symptoms associated with PTSD:
- Intrusive memories: Individuals with PTSD may experience recurrent, distressing memories of the traumatic event. These memories can come in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive thoughts that disrupt daily life.
- Avoidance behaviors: People with PTSD often try to avoid reminders or triggers associated with the traumatic event. They may avoid certain places, activities, or conversations that remind them of the trauma.
- Hyperarousal and hypervigilance: This symptom involves an ongoing sense of heightened alertness and being on edge. Individuals with PTSD may have difficulty relaxing, experience exaggerated startle responses, and be constantly on the lookout for potential threats.
- Negative alterations in mood and cognition: PTSD can lead to negative changes in thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. This may manifest as persistent negative emotions, distorted self-perception, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, difficulty experiencing positive emotions, feelings of detachment from others, or a sense of a bleak future.
- Emotional reactivity: Individuals with PTSD may exhibit emotional reactivity, including increased irritability, anger, or aggression. They may have difficulty regulating their emotions and experience intense emotional responses that seem disproportionate to the situation.
- Sleep disturbances: Sleep problems are common in PTSD. This can include insomnia, nightmares, restless sleep, or difficulty falling or staying asleep. Nightmares may specifically relate to the traumatic event.
- Hypervigilance and safety concerns: People with PTSD often remain hypervigilant about their surroundings, constantly scanning for potential threats- needing to secure the perimeter. They may be excessively cautious and have difficulty feeling safe in various environments.
- Cognitive difficulties: PTSD can impact cognitive functioning, leading to difficulties with concentration, memory, decision-making, and problem-solving. Individuals may experience mental fog or have trouble organizing their thoughts.
Be mindful of triggers, by learning to recognize the person's triggers reactions, and non-verbal cues and understanding and being curious about what might have caused or created a visceral reaction in the first place to normalize and calm their amygdala (fight, flight, and freeze part of the brain associated with hypervigilance, scanning and internalizing external and internal cues from the five senses, reading other expressions, feelings, their thoughts and beliefs in a complicated mirage of details recreating or causing the body to be in the trauma states or have a flashback. and help them manage or avoid those situations whenever possible. If a trigger cannot be avoided, develop a plan together on how to navigate it safely and provide support during and afterward (debriefing when in a calm state).
Encourage healthy coping mechanisms by helping the person develop and engage in healthy coping strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, physical exercise, creative outlets, or engaging in activities they find enjoyable and relaxing. It's important to note that while some symptoms may overlap with anger, frustration, fear, or hypervigilance experienced in other situations, the key distinction in PTSD is their persistence, severity, and association with the traumatic event. PTSD symptoms typically last for more than a month and significantly affect a person's daily functioning and well-being.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms suggestive of PTSD, it is advisable to seek professional help from a mental health practitioner. A qualified professional can conduct a thorough assessment and provide appropriate support, treatment, and coping strategies tailored to the individual's needs. It's important to recognize that some behaviors associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be mistaken for other conditions or interpreted differently.
Here are a few examples of PTSD behaviors that might be misconstrued:
- Avoidance of triggers: Individuals with PTSD may go to great lengths to avoid people, places, activities, or situations that remind them of the traumatic event. This avoidance can be mistaken for social withdrawal, introversion, or disinterest, rather than recognized as a coping mechanism to prevent distressing memories or triggers.
- Emotional numbing: People with PTSD may exhibit a reduced range of emotions, seeming detached or emotionally distant. This emotional numbing can be misinterpreted as apathy, lack of empathy, or even personality traits like coldness or indifference, rather than recognizing it as a defensive response to protect themselves from overwhelming emotions associated with the trauma.
- Hypervigilance and startle responses: Individuals with PTSD may be easily startled, hyperaware of their surroundings, and excessively vigilant for potential threats. These behaviors can be mistaken for general anxiety or an overly cautious personality, rather than recognized as symptoms of PTSD related to a heightened sense of danger and an altered perception of safety.
- Irritability and anger outbursts: PTSD can manifest as increased irritability, anger, or even rage. These emotional outbursts may be misconstrued as mood swings, anger management issues, or a generally bad temper, rather than recognized as symptoms of a traumatic stress response.
- Self-destructive behaviors: Some individuals with PTSD engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, or risky behaviors. These actions may be mistaken for poor impulse control, addiction issues, or attention-seeking behavior, rather than recognized as attempts to cope with distressing emotions or a way to regain a sense of control.
- Dissociation and detachment: People with PTSD may experience episodes of dissociation, feeling disconnected from their own body or surroundings, or having gaps in their memory related to the trauma. These experiences can be misinterpreted as absent-mindedness, memory problems, or even signs of dissociative disorder, rather than recognized as symptoms of PTSD.
- Changes in beliefs and worldview: PTSD can lead to significant shifts in an individual's beliefs, values, or worldview. They may struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, or a sense of being fundamentally changed by the trauma. These changes can be mistaken for personality changes, a crisis of identity, or even depression, rather than recognizing them as a consequence of traumatic experiences.
It's important to approach these behaviors with compassion and understanding, keeping in mind that they may be rooted in traumatic experiences. If you suspect someone may be struggling with PTSD or any mental health condition, it is best to encourage them to seek professional help from a qualified mental health practitioner for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate support. Here are some tips to help reduce reactivity, manage triggers, and understand your limitations when dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
- Practice relaxation techniques: Engage in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. These techniques can help calm your mind and body, reduce reactivity, and promote a sense of grounding.
- Develop an exit strategy: When entering potentially triggering situations, have an exit strategy in place. Knowing that you can leave if necessary can provide a sense of control and reduce anxiety. Communicate your exit plan to a trusted person who can support you in implementing it if needed.
- Preface difficult conversations: If you anticipate discussing sensitive or triggering topics, preface the conversation with those involved. Let them know that certain topics may be challenging for you due to your past experiences and ask for their understanding and support.
- Identify triggers and develop coping strategies: Pay attention to the specific triggers that evoke distressing reactions in you. Identify them and develop coping strategies to manage their impact. This could involve practicing deep breathing, using grounding techniques, or removing yourself from triggering situations.
- Understand your limitations: Recognize your limitations and be mindful of what you can handle emotionally and mentally on any given day. It's important to set realistic expectations for yourself and communicate your boundaries to others. Learning to say no and prioritizing self-care can help prevent overwhelm and reduce reactivity.
- Practice self-care regularly: Engage in activities that promote self-care and well-being. This can include exercise, engaging in hobbies, spending time in nature, connecting with loved ones, or practicing relaxation techniques. Taking care of yourself physically and emotionally can help reduce reactivity and improve overall resilience.
- Develop a support network: Surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or support groups who understand your experiences and can provide empathy and assistance when needed. Sharing your feelings and experiences with those who can relate can be therapeutic and reduce feelings of isolation.
- Seek professional help: Consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor specializing in trauma and PTSD. They can provide you with specific strategies and techniques tailored to your needs and help you navigate your journey toward healing.
Remember, everyone's experience with PTSD is unique, so it's important to find the coping strategies and techniques that work best for you. Be patient with yourself and permit yourself to prioritize your well-being as you navigate your healing process.
By: Nichole Oliver LPC, NCC, DAAETS