Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition resulting from exposure to a traumatic event causing terror and extreme fear or distress. Many PTSD symptoms can occur within a few weeks after someone goes through a traumatic event. It can also take months or years for symptoms of PTSD to appear.
Symptoms of PTSD can cause impaired daily functionality, problems at school or work and difficulty with relationships.
People may think of PTSD as being the result of experiences in war or combat. While this is a common reason for PTSD, there are others as well. Sometimes, PTSD can occur because of experiencing, seeing or learning about something that involves death, whether actual or threatened. Serious injury and sexual violence and assaults can also lead to the development of PTSD.
Not all people who go through trauma will develop PTSD. Certain risk factors can increase the likelihood such as experiencing ongoing trauma or having childhood trauma.
Having PTSD can be debilitating for some people. If someone you care about has this mental health disorder, you may wonder how to help someone with PTSD. Learning how to help a friend with PTSD can be a challenging objective, but there are ways you can be a strong support system.
Recognizing the Signs of PTSD
Learning how to recognize PTSD or spot the signs of PTSD can be important if you believe you have a friend who could have this disorder. While every person’s experience and symptoms of PTSD may vary, some of the potential signs of PTSD may include:
- Sleep disturbances including problems falling or staying asleep, or frequent nightmares
- Irritability or anger outbursts that appear out of control or disproportionate
- A sense of being disconnected from other people or numb from emotions
- Anxiety or problems feeling relaxation or a sense of calm
- Reliving traumatic events
- Generally feeling a sense of not being safe or intense feelings of fear even when there isn’t a threat or danger
- Suicidal thoughts
- Changes in behavior impacting relationships, self-esteem, performance at school or work or coping mechanisms
Tips for Helping Someone With PTSD
When it comes to helping someone with PTSD, it can feel overwhelming. It is a serious disorder that can have a significant impact on a person’s life. It’s not up to you as a friend or loved one to try and cure someone with PTSD or force them to get help.
What you can do is take positive steps to show them you care and that you support them. You can also encourage them to seek treatment, although it’s ultimately up to that person whether or not they do. Here are nine different ways you can help a loved one with PTSD.
1. Educate Yourself on PTSD
This condition tends to be misunderstood, and there’s often a stigma attached to it. If you have a friend who is struggling with PTSD, start by learning about it. Learn not only the symptoms but also learn about how it can make people feel and the emotional experience that can come with PTSD.
Learning about PTSD and gaining PTSD education can help you be more understanding and empathetic, and can also clear up misconceptions you might have.
When you learn more about PTSD, you’ll see that most people’s experiences aren’t like what you see in popular culture. The symptoms and the effects of PTSD can be more subtle and less overt, but no less difficult for the person experiencing them.
2. Be Supportive
Learning how to support someone with PTSD can help prevent this sense of isolation which often worsens symptoms. Provide PTSD support through listening and showing that you care. Don’t do it by trying to pressure the person into sharing with you when they don’t want to, or by suggesting actions that they aren’t ready for yet. Practice being a steady, reliable and trustworthy presence in their life.
3. Be Patient (Don’t Pressure Them)
When someone has PTSD, even talking about it briefly can be difficult. It can worsen their symptoms, and it can make them relive the trauma. When someone is ready to share with you, they will.
However, be patient until that time comes. Pushing someone into talking when they aren’t ready will not help them in the long-term.
Everyone with PTSD needs to feel comfortable sharing their experiences in their own time and at their own pace. That pace isn’t up to you, even though you have good intentions.
Listening is critical for social support. While you shouldn’t push someone into talking, when they’re ready to talk, let them know you’re there to listen. Practice active listening to show you’re engaged, but don’t try to compare your feelings or experiences to those of your friend. Even if you’ve experienced PTSD, you don’t have to say you understand, because maybe you don’t know their exact experience. Listening is enough.
5. Don’t Judge
It’s often extremely hard for people with PTSD to open up because they fear judgment. They might fear what people will think of them as far as their experiences leading to the development of PTSD. They may fear that they will be treated differently or stigmatized.
Provide a safe space for your friend that they know will be judgment-free. Prepare yourself to potentially listen to difficult or upsetting stories that your friend needs to get off their chest.
6. Show Respect
Don’t belittle the experiences or feelings of your friend with PTSD. Treat them with respect and avoid minimizing their feelings or trying to act as if didn’t happen.
Saying platitudes like, “It could have been worse,” or in some way indicating that your friend is weak, or that PTSD is a personal failing. These statements can be destructive for the person as well as their sense of trust in, and their relationship with, you.
7. Learn About Their Triggers
A trigger can be anything that spurs a fear response in someone with PTSD. It can be something that to you is very ordinary, but it reminds a person with PTSD of their past trauma. Everyone’s triggers are unique and specific to their experiences.
Talk to your friend about what their specific triggers are, and find ways to help them avoid those whenever possible. Specific PTSD triggers can be sounds, smells, dates, people, locations or even types of weather.
8. Encourage Them to Seek Treatment
It’s beyond your control to make someone seek treatment. If they are ready or are considering treatment, you can encourage them along the way, however.
Research some of the treatment options available for PTSD. Look for treatment providers and programs that specialize in PTSD. Explore the benefits of treatment and, when your friend is ready, share what you come up with.
9. Take Care of Yourself
When you’re working to support a friend with PTSD, it can be difficult to set boundaries and protect your well-being. Always remember to take time for yourself, as challenging as it can be. Develop coping mechanisms, healthy ways of dealing with stress and take time each day to do what bring you joy.
Additional PTSD Support Resources
Along with treatment, consider encouraging your friend to join a local support group. There are many different kinds of support groups located in cities and towns across the country. Maybe attend with your friend, if they are comfortable with that.
Support groups for PTSD are a beneficial way to build a strong support network and interact with other people who also have this condition. It can feel good to have a safe space to share and listen among people who can empathize having PTSD.
There are support groups specifically for victims of childhood abuse, sexual trauma, and also for veterans. These groups are operated by private organizations, nonprofits and also governmental organizations.
Key Points: Helping a Friend With PTSD
Knowing how to help someone with PTSD can feel overwhelming, but there are approaches you can take that may be helpful, including:
- Educating yourself on PTSD
- Being supportive
- Being patient
- Don’t judge
- Showing respect
- Learning about their triggers
- Encouraging them to seek treatment
- Taking care of yourself
If you would like more information about PTSD as well as treatment options, contact The Recovery Village. A representative can answer your questions and recommend a treatment program that may meet your needs.
Schuster, Sarah. “22 Ways to Support Someone with PTSD, From People Who Have It.” The Mighty. March 3, 2016. Accessed January 20, 2019.
Thorpe, JR. “How to Help a Friend with PTSD.” Bustle. August 9, 2016. Accessed January 10, 2019.
Holtz, Pamela. “10 Ways To Support a Friend Battling PTSD.” Task and Purpose. April 7, 2015. Accessed January 10, 2019.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Symptoms of PTSD.” Accessed January 10, 2019.
VA National Center for PTSD. “Peer Support Groups” Accessed January 20, 2019.