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.
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.
Recognising the symptoms of PTSD in your loved one
What are these PTSD symptoms we’ve been speaking of?
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.
What could trigger your loved one's PTSD symptoms?
“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.
Supportive rules to bear in mind when interacting with your loved one
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.
Concrete steps you should take with your loved one who has PTSD
- Find out what triggers the PTSD. Since we’ve established that the triggers of PTSD vary from person to person and can be quite subtle, it’s up to both of you to be watchful and identify the things, places, smells or sounds that trigger PTSD in your loved one.
- It may seem like the obvious thing to do next is to make sure that your loved one does not come in contact with any of the identified triggers at all, but Lohman says this isn’t the right way to go. “Developing awareness of the triggers is important, but it's more important to gradually practice remaining calm when triggered and reminding oneself that they are experiencing a memory but are currently safe (if that's the case). This is more important than avoiding the triggers, and is usually something that they will work through with their therapist.”
- Learn as much as you can about PTSD. Being educated about PTSD is the best thing you can do for not just your partner, but yourself too.The more informed you are about the condition, the better you can empathise with your loved one. It’ll also help dispel your feelings of helplessness and frustration.
- Get involved with therapy, medical appointments and medication. A lot of people who are suffering from PTSD rely on self-coping mechanisms. Sometimes it works, other times- not so much. Formal treatment is the best option if you realise that self-coping isn’t working for your loved one and it involves psychotherapy and medication. If this is the avenue being pursued, participating by accompanying them to the doctor's office and being aware of the medications prescribed are a great way to show them you care.
- Help your loved one maintain their support system, or if there’s none at the moment, help them build one.
- People with PTSD sometimes exhibit a lot of anger as a reaction to their trauma. In order to make sure that this doesn’t degenerate into a cycle of unproductive anger and possibly even violence, you should encourage your loved one to take anger and stress management classes, either alone or with you. You can also sign up for couple's counselling and/or family therapy, as it may help your relationship/family cope better as a whole.
Don't neglect yourself
PTSD can be contagious. No, not in the direct way you’re thinking, like a cold or the flu. However, It’s been recognised 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.
- Set boundaries - while you need to be understanding, it's also important to set boundaries and ensure you feel safe and respected in the relationship
- Use your support network - try and talk to friends and family about what you are going through. You can also look for support groups or consider asking your doctor for a mental health plan to see a psychologist if it's having a major impact on your own mental health.
- Take time out to refill your bucket - try and take some time out for things that refill your bucket such as exercise, fresh air, hobbies/sports or time with friends.
“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/