It can be really nerve-wracking watching your partner or family member suffer from PTSD and not knowing what to do can make you develop feelings of helplessness. What do you do? How do you act? What happens when the PTSD is triggered? These are all questions you may have found yourself wondering the answers to. While nobody imagines that you have all the answers and solutions, the good news is that you can still be helpful.
But before any of that, you must first really understand what PTSD is and what causes it.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that arises in some people when they go through a particularly shocking, traumatic or dangerous incident.
Nearly everyone will feel scared before and after a traumatic event, and because we’re all different, there’ll be a range of reactions exhibited. But while most people will recover from these distress symptoms naturally, people with PTSD still continue to experience them even way after the incident and when they’re not in danger- sometimes they even intensify to the point where the person’s normal life is disrupted. Experiencing a car crash, a workplace accident, a medical procedure gone bad or living in a war-zone (the list is inexhaustible) can make a person have PTSD.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I almost lost my husband to PTSD. He lived in silence unable to process cumulative workplace trauma. <a href="https://t.co/4hZFvVWANx">https://t.co/4hZFvVWANx</a></p>— afamilyrestored (@afamilyrestored) <a href="https://twitter.com/afamilyrestored/status/913372738781351938?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">September 28, 2017</a></blockquote>
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An estimated 12% of people in Australia will experience PTSD during their lifetime, and one of its leading causes is serious accidents.
“People are generally doing their best to recover from their traumatic experiences, but it takes time and a lot of support (personal and professional), understanding and patience from those around them.” Psychologist and mindfulness practitioner Kali Lohman says this is the most important thing you need to keep in mind about your loved one’s PTSD.
Lohman breaks them down for us: “There are four particular categories of symptoms: re-experiencing (eg., nightmares, flashbacks), avoidance (eg., overuse of drugs or alcohol in order to 'forget'), arousal (eg., hyper-vigilant, easily started), and negative changes in beliefs and feelings (eg., about themselves and others).
These symptoms may crop up right after the event/incident, but they also sometimes take a while to manifest and gradually increase in intensity. In some other cases too, the onset of PTSD may be sudden and dramatic.
“There are many, many different triggers and again, this will be unique to the individual. It may be a sound, a smell, something they see or feel or even taste.” Lohman explains. “The brain and body remember trauma so it is often not conscious or logical.”
For example, if your partner/family member was involved in a car accident, being in or around cars may trigger PTSD symptoms. Slightly less obvious triggers like news reports of car accidents, the smell of gasoline and the sound of an engine could also trigger symptoms in them.
So now that you understand the condition, here’s a guide on what do and how to act when your loved one does have PTSD.
Don’t pressure your loved one to talk about the traumatic experience(s) that led to the PTSD. It can be very difficult for them to think of it, talk less of speaking about it. Allow them to open up to you about it by themselves.
Also, not everything has to be about the PTSD. You should still engage in regular activities with your loved one that have nothing to do with PTSD or the trauma. Take a stroll, go fishing, or even exercise together.
PTSD can be contagious. No, not in the direct way you’re thinking, like a cold or the flu. However, It’s been recognized that those who take care of and are in close relations with people who have PTSD- such as therapists, partners and family members- also sometimes exhibit symptoms of PTSD after a while. This is called secondary traumatic stress.
You may also develop what is called caregiver burden. This is when you’re under a lot of stress and strain dealing with many elements such as the finances, children and your household (on top of managing your loved one’s crises). You’re now managing stressors alone- issues that you would have shared with your loved one were it not for the PTSD- and this can put an enormous strain on you. You can manage this stress by joining an online support group where you can talk to and relate with others caring for people with PTSD. Also, there’s no special reward for doing it all on your own, so ask for and accept help from friends and family members.
“Taking good care of yourself is the priority! Living with someone who is experiencing distressing symptoms can be exhausting and like an emotional roller-coaster. Remember it's not your role to 'fix' your loved one, but rather to provide love and emotional support and do your best not to take things personally.” Lohman advises further. ”Their behaviour may be quite different to your experience of them before the traumatic event/s and this is not your fault. Seeing professional support for yourself can also be very useful.”
Remember: relax, eat well, get sufficient sleep and don’t feel guilty about putting yourself first sometimes.
About the expert: Ms Kali Lohman is the Director of Mindful Psychology Brisbane in Greenslopes. Her areas of expertise include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, addictions, and relationship and workplace stressors. An experienced psychologist, she is also a trained facilitator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course and has significant experience with culturally-diverse populations. She is also an Employee Assistance Program Provider. http://www.mindfulpsychology.com.au/