When a loved one has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s important to know how you can help them and take care of yourself, too. The National Center for PTSD estimates that at least 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives. This debilitating condition occurs after you have a trauma, such as military combat, violent crime, or natural disasters.
Many people who go through a trauma have symptoms like reliving the event; avoiding situations and places that remind them of the event; being on edge, angry and irritable; and feeling depressed and unable to enjoy life. Most of the time, survivors of trauma will start to feel better within a few weeks or months, but if they are still struggling with symptoms like these after some time has passed, they may have PTSD.
Here are five key things experts say family members and friends of people with PTSD should know.
1. It can be treated. “PTSD is a mental health condition that requires professional attention,” says Shaili Jain, MD, a psychiatrist at the VA Palo Alto Health System in California who is affiliated with the National Center for PTSD, operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “It’s important to do whatever you can to support your loved one in seeking a qualified mental health professional to support them in their recovery journey.” The National Center for PTSD has a “find a therapist” resource online, as well as a host of other support tools such as a PTSD treatment decision aid, apps, and videos.
“While it’s certainly possible for people to get better on their own, family members can be incredibly important in getting someone with PTSD the support they need,” agrees . “Some treatment programs specifically involve family and partners in the process.”
2. It’s not something that “happened in the past.” For someone with PTSD, a trauma that may have taken place months or years ago is still happening right now. “Some people may say, ‘That happened so long ago, it’s time to just get over it,’” says clinical psychologist Autumn Gallegos Greenwich, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center who studies mind-body interventions on posttraumatic stress symptoms. “But no matter when the traumatic event happened, physiologically and psychologically it’s still happening in the moment for that person. Someone who hasn’t been through a trauma like that may hear the neighbor hammering loudly on the roof and be startled, but they can figure out the context and move on. But for someone with PTSD, the body will react as if it’s in danger. It’s still trying to process something that is hard to make sense of, and needs help.”
3. It’s happening to you, too. If you love someone with PTSD, you’re affected by it as well.
“People who are close to someone with PTSD need to take care of themselves as well,” Gallegos Greenwich says. “That often gets forgotten, dismissed, or minimized. You might think, ‘My loved one went through that trauma, not me, so why am I feeling this way?’ But to some degree, you are going through it, too, and you need to do your own self-care.”
“Living with someone who has PTSD, especially if you are a family caregiver, can be mentally and physically exhausting,” Schnurr says. “Take care of yourself, be kind and forgiving to yourself, and make time to do things that help restore you. If your partner is agreeable, couples or family therapy can also be very helpful.”
The National Center for PTSD also offers links to help for families and friends, including a guide to understanding PTSD and an app called the PTSD Family Coach.
4. Don’t over-protect. “You want to reduce your loved one’s distress, but in this case, exposure to the distress is part of the therapeutic process,” Schnurr says. For example, if your partner experiences stress when going into open public spaces where there is much that can’t be controlled, you may want to volunteer to run those errands for them. “But it’s therapeutic to learn how to go to those places and stay there long enough to habituate and learn that it’s safe to be there. Some distress is part of that process as people work through their thoughts and feelings about the trauma.”
5. Set your own boundaries so that PTSD does not control your life. When you live with someone who has PTSD, you may feel like you have to walk on eggshells to avoid setting off a stressor. “The most powerful thing you can do is learn to cope with the symptoms together, rather than enable them or reinforce them,” Jain says. “Say your partner has PTSD and because of it, he does not like crowds and does not want to go out to the grocery store, parties, or a concert. Often in an attempt to help, the spouse may reinforce that behavior, saying no to things like family invitations and limiting what they themselves can do in their leisure time to accommodate the symptoms. So no one goes anywhere.”
Instead, understand that this isolation is a symptom of PTSD and help is available, and in the meantime, find a compromise that works for your family and allows you to keep doing the things you like to do.