How to Meet the Needs of a Loved One with PTSD

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Imagine walking down the sidewalk and bumping into someone that smells like your attacker. Imagine hitting the floor when the neighborhood kids set off fireworks. Imagine feeling paralyzed by painful and terrifying images that haunt you. That’s what a loved one with PTSD endures.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be a debilitating condition to watch someone suffer through.

Often, a loved one with PTSD can show signs of:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Physical ailments

Caring for someone who suffers from symptoms of post-traumatic stress requires patience, understanding, and consistency. Here are a few things to consider when providing support to a loved one with PTSD:

Active Listening

Active listening is a technique that helps us better communicate with others. A person can often feel powerless, guilty, or erased by their trauma. Active listening is one way in which to give the person back feelings of power, control, and voice.

Active listening can be divided into three major parts: attention, feedback, and response. Demonstrate your attention by keeping consistent eye-contact, nodding, and other encouraging signs and feedback that indicate you are listening to what the person with PTSD is telling you. Do validate the emotions your loved one is sharing with you about their experience. It is not a time to offer advice or rebuttals to what you are being told.

Feedback is a way to reassure the speaker that not only their words, but overall argument is being heard and understood. Try to rephrase what you think the speaker is saying to show comprehension. For example, “What I am hearing is that you feel… . Am I understanding you correctly?”

Active listening is intended for each person to learn. Make sure you communicate your own responses in a way that is non-aggressive and leaves an opening for continued discussion.

Open Invitations

Socialization is a key part of recovery for many who suffer from PTSD. However, it may take time for a person to feel ready to engage in social activities. Be aware of what a safe social space looks like for someone with PTSD.

Although you might enjoy a good party or a loud music concert, these spaces might be overwhelming for a loved one with PTSD. Learn what types of space your loved one feels comfortable in and arrange engagements around similar spaces. Small gatherings of friends or family members might be a better way to help the person with PTSD begin to engage with others until they feel more comfortable in social settings.

When inviting your loved one to a social occasion, give them the power to determine whether they want to attend or not. Reassuring the person that it is an open invitation and you will not be upset if they decide to stay home, will help support your loved one’s ability to make choices for themselves based on their needs.

You might invite your loved one to several events before they decide to attend one. Being persistent, but never pushy, when offering open invitations will keep your loved one from regressing inwardly and encourage them to create positive interactions.

Check-In With Yourself

Checking in with yourself allows you to have time for reflection on the three R’s: review, reassess, and repair. Rejoice in the positive experiences you’ve shared with your loved one and keep in mind that, in certain situations, victims of trauma can act in response to their PTSD and not by conscious decision. This type of reflection helps better frame the high and low aspects of your relationship.

For the moments in which a loved one seems to regress, reassess the ways in which you are connecting with your loved one. Are you practicing active listening, offering support in daily tasks, being available to your loved one when they need a calming and safe presence, and gently encouraging them to participate in activities?

Being an emotional support for a loved one in need can often lead to us neglecting our own needs and health. Treating yourself to restorative practices, healthy eating, getting plenty of sleep, staying active, and staying connected with friends and family are all great ways to keep you equipped for supporting a loved one with PTSD. If you need additional support, seek the help of a counselor to help you learn new coping skills to better handle the changes and challenges you are experiencing in your relationship with your loved one.

Above all, remember that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not an easy equation. It will take time and patience to figure out the best way to approach the needs of your loved one and will often require a daily re-evaluation of those needs. The most important thing, above all else, is that you are present and willing.

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Janie McMahan is a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Austin, Texas. She works with couples and individuals in her practice, with a focus on helping them recover from a variety of traumatic life experiences. Contact her at 512-739-2494 for scheduling.