Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that can result from experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Symptoms can include re-experiencing the event through nightmares or flashbacks; avoidance of triggers related to the trauma; physical arousal due to fear; and negative changes in mood and cognition.
If someone you know is struggling with PTSD, it can be difficult to know how to help. Here are some suggestions on how to support someone with PTSD.
Educate yourself about PTSD
The first step in helping someone with PTSD is to educate yourself about the condition. Learn about the symptoms, triggers, and treatment options so you can better understand what your loved one is going through.
Phoenix Australia, located in the University of Melbourne, is the Australian national centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. You can find resources for treatment and support, as well as training in supporting people with PTSD: https://www.phoenixaustralia.org
In addition, international mental health organisations such as the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) also offers various resources to help you learn more about PTSD: https://istss.org/home
Be a good listener
It can be helpful for someone with PTSD to talk about their experiences and feelings, but it’s important to listen without judgment or interruption. Let the person know that you are there for them and that you want to support them. It’s also important to respect their boundaries if they don’t want to talk about their trauma.
Active listening and offering statements of empathy from the listener could help the person suffering from PTSD feel heard and validated.
As a carer, it’s not necessary to give advice, as your advice might not fit the person’s needs. For example, you might think forgiveness is important to the person recovering from the trauma and thus encourage practices of forgiveness. However, the role of forgiveness is complex.
For survivors of childhood abuse, research suggests that forgiveness of oneself and the situation will help reduce the symptoms of PTSD; rather than forgiving the perpetrator. There is an article on the Centre for Clinical Psychology’s website about this topic of forgiveness in PTSD, which you can access via this link https://ccp.net.au/forgivenessis-it-a-necessary-ingredient-in-healing-from-ptsd/
Be careful not to reinforce avoidance
People with PTSD may struggle to do tasks that provoke distress, or to visit places and people that remind them of their trauma. Depending on the severity of their trauma, people might avoid external triggers, as well as everyday tasks and responsibilities. It’s important for you to know that such avoidance disrupts and even prevents the trauma recovery process.
Although you want to be seen as helpful to your loved one, by helping them with chores and errands or driving them to appointments, your well-intentioned support might be reinforcing avoidance. If you keep doing chores and driving them to appointments, that also takes away their motivation to do things themselves.
You can be a source of emotional support when they need it. However, don’t take on the responsibility of changing or “fixing” the person with PTSD. There are professionals that can help people with PTSD to recover from their trauma.
PTSD can be treated with therapy and medication, but some people may be hesitant to seek help. Encourage your loved one to talk to a mental health professional about their symptoms and treatment options. Offer to help them find a therapist or direct them to the websites above for information on resources and treatment options for trauma.
Among evidence-based interventions for PTSD, Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a cognitive-behavioural treatment (developed in the late 1980s) shown to be effective in reducing PTSD symptoms. This therapy can be used for a variety of traumatic events including child abuse, combat, rape and natural disasters.
CPT typically consists of 12 weekly sessions of between 50 to 60 minutes. For more information on how it works, visit https://ccp.net.au/about-cpt-for-ptsd/
Be patient and understanding
Recovery from PTSD can be a long and difficult process, and it’s important to be patient and understanding. Your loved one may have good days and bad days, and it’s important to support them through both. Remember that healing takes time, and recovery is possible with the right treatment and support.
It is unlikely that you will experience trauma as a result of listening to and supporting people with trauma (i.e., vicarious trauma). However, you might feel drained and low if you neglect your own self-care.
Supporting someone with PTSD often requires educating yourself about the condition, being a good listener, offering emotional support without reinforcing avoidance, encouraging treatment, and being patient and understanding. Finally, while helping your loved one on their journey to healing, don’t forget to take care of yourself!
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. https://istss.org/home
Phoenix Australia. https://www.phoenixaustralia.org
Resick, P. A., & Schnicke, M. K. (1992). Cognitive processing therapy for sexual assault victims. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 60(5), 748.