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How Do I Help Someone with PTSD?

Unless you've experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, it can be difficult to understand why a past event can continue to affect someone now. You may wonder why the person can't just "get over it." You may also wonder why seemingly low-stress situations can create confusion and evoke strong reactions.

If you have a loved one with PTSD, it's important to understand that they cannot control their symptoms. With your help, however, they can get on the path to recovery and begin leading a more enjoyable life.

Understanding PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health problem that results from exposure to especially distressing circumstances. While commonly associated with military combat, PTSD can stem from any traumatic event, including:

  • A serious car wreck

  • Mugging, robbery, sexual assault

  • Severe neglect or prolonged sexual abuse

  • Terrorist attacks

  • Being held hostage

  • A flood, tsunami, earthquake, tornado or fire

  • Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness

  • A severe injury or the loss of a loved one

In ideal circumstances, adversity promotes positive changes in a person's psyche. Sometimes, however, intense adversity causes changes in the brain, which can make daily life difficult. PTSD patients often have trouble managing their emotions. They may have anxiety attacks, fits of rage, nightmares, flashbacks, sleeping difficulties and negative changes in habits and mood. To cope with their newfound difficulties, many PTSD patients turn to drugs and alcohol and/or withdraw from social life. This can exacerbate existing problems and lead to a downward spiral.

Helping your PTSD loved one

How can you help someone cope with and recover from PTSD? The following tips include helpful steps for dealing with and loving someone with PTSD.

  • Learn all you can about post-traumatic stress disorder. Try to gain a better understanding about triggering events, psychic reactions to trauma, PTSD warning signs and potential treatments. This will allow you to support and guide your loved one down the path toward diagnosis, treatment and healing.

  • Tag along to doctor visits. Help keep track of medicines and make yourself available during the daunting outset of the treatment process.

  • Be available, but not pushy. Let your loved one know you are available and willing to listen if he or she needs to talk. That said, you should also explain that you understand if the person doesn't feel like talking.

  • Get out and get active. Studies suggest that things like group exercise and family activities can have a positive impact on PTSD. It can be especially helpful if these activities are planned as part of a weekly or daily routine. Work out together, have dinner or go to a movie on certain days, so you both have something to look forward to.

  • Get a pet. Studies suggest that bonding with an animal can elevate levels of the hormone oxytocin, which could help patients overcome paranoia and other anti-social effects related to PTSD.

  • Encourage contact with friends and family. A support system will help your PTSD loved one cope with difficult changes and stressful times.

Getting help

It's important for you to take care of yourself while you're supporting your loved one with PTSD. Unpredictable outbursts and mood changes can leave caregivers feeling angry and emotionally drained. Consider offloading some of your responsibilities to friends and family members. You can also reach out to church members, doctors, support groups and other health professionals.

It can take time for you and your loved one to accept the "new normal." That said, with proper treatment and attentive support, recovery is possible, and in many cases, quite likely.