What is PTSD?
“It’s not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.” – Sonawane Raj
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event like a natural disaster, a serious accident, sexual assault, war and combat, a terrorist act, or after being threatened with death, sexual violence or severe injury. PTSD has been known by different names such as “shell shock” and “combat fatigue” particularly after World Wars I and II. This has led many to believe that PTSD only affects soldiers or veterans. However, PTSD can also impact individuals without a military background. Every year, PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults from all walks of life and an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.
Some symptoms of PTSD include:
- Flashbacks or feeling like you are experiencing the event all over again
- Intrusive thoughts and/or images
- Feeling anxious or “keyed up”
- Intense distress when confronted with people, places, objects, or symbolic reminders of the traumatic event
- Hypervigilance or always being on guard
- Physical and Emotional reactions such as irritability, trembling, nausea, being easily frightened, trouble sleeping or concentrating, guilt and shame
Risk Factors vs. Protective Factors
Not everyone who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event will have PTSD. Although it is impossible to predict who PTSD will affect, there are certain risk factors linked to a higher chance of developing this disorder. Conversely, there are certain protective factors that can prevent or reduce a person’s vulnerability for development of PTSD.
Do’s and Don’t of supporting a loved one with PTSD
DO listen: Part of the healing process includes discussing the traumatic event. This means that your loved one may need to repeatedly talk about their experience. Whenever they’re ready to talk, be sure that you are ready to listen. Allow them to feel safe talking about the trauma as many times as they need.
DO learn more: The more you know about PTSD symptoms and treatment, the more you’ll be able to understand and offer meaningful support.
DO anticipate and help manage triggers: Certain sounds, smells, people, or places and even times of the year (especially anniversaries of events) can be triggers for your loved one with PTSD. Initiate a conversation to find out what their triggers are and ask them how you can best support them during a vivid flashback, panic episode, or nightmare.
Do practice self-care: You must know your own personal limits. It can be difficult to hear details about traumatic events especially from those we care about. As a support person, it is important that you have a plan in place to care for your emotional needs to minimize your risk of secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is emotional duress that occurs from hearing first hand accounts from survivors of traumatic events. With prolonged exposure, secondary trauma can lead to symptoms that mimic those of PTSD.
DON’T pressure your loved one to talk about the trauma: Although processing the trauma is an important step in healing, it is best to allow your loved one to open up when they are ready. Work to create an open, nonjudgmental environment to help them feel comfortable when they do decide to share. Once they feel ready to open up, you can also encourage them to seek professional counseling to further process their experience.
DON’T invalidate or minimize their experience: Avoid telling your loved one that things could have been worse or that others have had it worse. When trying to offer comfort, a good rule of thumb is to avoid starting any sentence with “at least”. Allow them to process their feelings without comparing them to others.
DON’T offer unsolicited advice. Do not try to “fix” their problems or offer advice unless it is asked for. Avoid telling them what they should do or dominating the conversation with your own personal experiences and feelings. Remember, even if you may have been exposed to the same trauma, you did not experience the trauma the same way your loved one did.
DON’T lose patience: Your loved one will have good and bad days. You may feel helpless as they struggle. This helplessness can lead to feelings of frustration. It can be tempting to tell your loved one to just let go and move on. You may feel resentment and blame family issues or conflict on their PTSD diagnosis. Be patient with your loved one and yourself. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed remember to revisit your self care plan.
Treatment for sufferers of PTSD
“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”- Peter Levine
There are different types of trauma-focused psychotherapy that are effective treatments for PTSD. Working closely with a trauma-informed therapist, you can identify a treatment plan tailored to your individual needs. In some cases, medication prescribed by a doctor may be needed in combination with psychotherapy to alleviate PTSD symptoms. Without treatment, PTSD symptoms can worsen over time and will cause major impairment in your daily life. You cannot change the past, however, you do not have to allow the past to rob you of the future.
If you feel that you or someone you know may be experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it is important to seek out help from a mental health provider as soon as possible. If you feel you are in need of immediate assistance, please refer to our crisis plan to view local resources for mental health emergencies.