Supporting someone with PTSD can include giving them the space to talk about it and encouraging them to get professional treatment.
PTSD can affect people differently. The support your loved one needs can depend on their experiences, symptoms, and current mental state.
Remember, while you can offer support and create a safe environment for your loved one, allowing them to take the lead can be a good idea. Respect their boundaries, and listen to them when they ask for help.
Healing from trauma can be a lonely journey. Your loved one may need a sympathetic person to talk with. Talking about it can allow them to share their feelings and experiences and have those feelings validated and understood.
“Talking about it” doesn’t just mean discussing details of the traumatic event. They might need to talk about other topics — their feelings, symptoms, and healing process.
Here are some general tips for listening to someone with PTSD:
- Try to practice active listening: Give them your full attention and be present.
- Avoid passing blame: Even if you have the best intentions, telling someone what they “should do” or “should’ve done” can come across as judgmental and unhelpful.
- Avoid minimizing their feelings: They may seem irrationally fearful, hopeless, or sensitive to you — but their feelings are real. Avoid downplaying their fears or telling them to “look on the bright side” when they confide in you.
- Be patient: They may need time to open up. It may also take some time for them to articulate their feelings. Try to give them space to talk at their own pace.
If they’re not ready to talk with you but need to talk with someone, gently suggest therapy or a support group. If it’s easier for them, journaling might be a good way for them to express their feelings without facing another person.
Predicting what will or won’t trigger your loved one isn’t always easy. But it can be helpful to:
- Learn their specific triggers: This can take time — even people with PTSD may not always know what will or won’t trigger them. But keep their known triggers in mind.
- Minimize unnecessary exposure to those triggers: If big crowds trigger your loved one, avoid bringing them on shopping trips to a busy mall. If loud sounds trigger them, consider getting them noise-canceling headphones and closing the windows on the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve.
- Be understanding: Try not to hold it against your loved one when they avoid places, people, or situations that are triggering for them. For example, respect that boundary if they decide to leave your birthday party when it gets too rowdy.
People with PTSD
These signs may involve:
- sudden changes in behaviors, facial expressions, and gestures
- a frightened or frozen expression on their face
- shaking, shivering, or sweating
- suddenly withdrawing (going quiet or taking a step back from the crowd)
- disconnection from the present, like they’re “somewhere else”
- vocal or physical reactions that seem out of place
If they’re having difficulty, check in on them in a private and quiet space. Ask them if they want help navigating the situation. If they do, ask them what they need from you.
In the heat of the moment, they might not know what they want you to do but still want your help. Consider:
- staying calm and keeping your voice gentle
- reminding them gently that they’re safe
- encouraging them to do grounding exercises (like focusing on breathing or describing their surroundings)
- asking if you can help them get somewhere that feels calmer (e.g., get home, go to a different room, go outside) if the current environment is triggering
Try to be a calm and warm presence for them. Avoid pushing them to talk about it, especially when they feel emotional.
Although PTSD has no cure, people can manage it. Certain treatments can improve your loved one’s symptoms, which can boost their quality of life and help them feel better.
Experts may highly recommend talk therapy, in particular, for treating PTSD.
You might encourage your loved one to get therapy if they aren’t getting it already. This can look like:
- helping them find a therapist or look for online therapy services
- guiding them through getting insurance coverage or looking for more affordable therapy options
- encouraging them to pursue alternatives or add-ons to therapy, like support groups
If they’re currently receiving treatment, you can support them by:
- reminding them that therapy, while challenging, can pay off in the long run
- giving them space to talk about their sessions or insights
- offering practical support, like a ride to their therapist’s office or joining them at a support group meeting
- suggesting self-care activities (if they ask), like journaling or exercise
You can also suggest soothing, fun activities that you both can do, like going for a walk, baking, or having an arts-and-crafts day. Not only is it a great way to spend time together, but these activities can also be great for self-care.
In times of crisis, your loved one may need more support than they can give. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t meet your needs.
It’s a good idea to set boundaries when necessary. Consider the types of support you may be willing or unwilling to offer your loved one. Then, communicate it with them if it comes up. For example, they can come over on weekends but not during the week if they need company.
Watching a loved one experience PTSD can be painful in itself. It could be helpful to get therapy or join a support group yourself. Make sure you have social support and prioritize self-care by doing activities that support your mental health and well-being.
PTSD can be a challenging (and often debilitating) condition to live with. Having the support of a compassionate loved one can make a world of difference.
It’s not always easy to know how to support someone. Letting them take the lead, being patient, and educating yourself about PTSD are all great strategies. Find a balance between providing support and honoring your needs, and get professional treatment if necessary.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.