Updated October 27, 2022
Learning how to help someone during a PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) episode can make a big difference in their life and well-being. Though you cannot cure your loved one of their PTSD — or force them to seek treatment — there are things you can do to support them.
PTSD is not uncommon in the military. In fact, an estimated 11% of Veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20% of Veterans of the war in Iraq developed the disorder. While the prevalence of this condition doesn’t make it any less difficult, it does show that the military spouse community is no stranger to PTSD.
There’s no shortage of insight into how to help a loved one with PTSD from the unique perspective of a MilSpouse — which means you’re not alone if you or a family member or friend are suffering from it. Read on to learn 6 ways you can prepare yourself to help someone with (or showing symptoms of) PTSD.
Before we dive in, a quick disclaimer: Please reach out to a licensed professional for PTSD treatment and diagnosis, should you require it. SpouseLink is simply here to provide you with general coping advice based on the real-life experiences of our military spouse community.
1. Educate Yourself
One of the best ways to determine how to help someone with PTSD is to learn more about them and what they’re dealing with. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to support your loved one.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), PTSD is a mental disorder that can develop in people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. However, not everyone with PTSD has been through a physically dangerous event, which means you don’t have to have been deployed to develop PTSD.
Additionally, not everyone who experiences a dangerous or traumatic event develops PTSD. There are several factors that influence whether or not a person develops PTSD, referred to as “risk factors” and “resilience factors.”
Risk factors make an individual more likely to develop PTSD, while resilience factors can help reduce the risk. These factors include gender, education level, personal history, genetics, trauma severity, social support, etc. For example, studies have shown women are twice as likely to develop PTSD than men.
To help you learn more about these factors, the types of symptoms to look for, and other information on how to help a loved one with PTSD, here’s a list of authoritative sources for your research.
- National Center for PTSD
- National Institute of Mental Health
- PTSD Foundation of America
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Resource Directory
SpouseLink also has some resources based on the real perspectives of military spouses and Veterans to help you learn more about PTSD.
2. Provide Social Support
When you’re figuring out how to help a loved one with PTSD, keep in mind that your personal support is a big factor. It’s common for people with PTSD symptoms to feel alienated or detached from friends or family members (Source: NIMH). This may lead them to withdraw from friends and family. However, not having social support can potentially impede their recovery after trauma.
That’s why doing “normal” things that allow your loved one to interact with others can help in their recovery process.
Setting up regular lunch dates with friends and family can also promote social time in a setting that feels familiar and safe. Exercising with your loved one can also be beneficial because, in addition to being social, exercise releases endorphins which will help improve your loved one’s mood.
3. Rebuild Safety and Trust
Trust is huge when learning how to help someone during a PTSD episode. Unfortunately, trauma can alter your loved one’s worldview and cause it to seem dangerous and frightening. It can also make it difficult for them to trust others and themselves, so taking steps to rebuild your loved one’s sense of security will help contribute to their recovery.
You can do this by staying connected to them and keeping your promises to re-establish trust. It can also be helpful to create routines and schedules that include regular errands and mealtimes to foster a sense of stability and reduce stress.
Attending doctor appointments with your loved one can help the experience feel less overwhelming for them. Plus, doing so allows you to keep track of things like future appointments and other next steps. This is an example of a seemingly small burden that you can take off of their plate so they can focus on recovery.
4. Anticipate Triggers
Learning about triggers is an essential part of learning how to help someone with PTSD. Triggers are people, places, things, and situations that can set off a PTSD symptom. These triggers can be their own internal thoughts as well as external factors like loud noises that sound like gunfire, or even a certain scent. Essentially, triggers are anything that reminds your loved one of the traumatic event they endured.
Try talking to your loved one about their triggers and help them predict any that might come up when entering a new situation. Together, you can develop a plan for how to respond to triggers as well as what to do in the case of a nightmare, flashback, or panic attack.
If your loved one is comfortable doing so, involve a doctor when developing a plan for PTSD triggers. Leaning on professional medical insight can make a big difference when learning how to help someone with PTSD episodes.
5. Manage Anger
Those with PTSD can experience difficulties managing emotions and impulses, and this can lead to extreme irritability, moodiness, or outburst of rage. As you learn how to help a loved one with PTSD, you can manage these outbursts by watching for signs of anger, such as your loved one clenching their first, talking louder, or getting animated.
When you notice these signs, take steps to defuse the situation immediately. Remain calm, give your loved one space, and ask how you can help them. You can also suggest that they take a break from the upsetting scenario.
This is a good time to note the importance of having your own support system. There may be times when you feel the need to call for backup. Follow your instincts and have a few family members or friends prepped for this scenario.
6. Take Care of Yourself
It’s honorable that you want to learn how to help a loved one with PTSD, but never forget the most important part: your own well-being.
It’s so important to take care of yourself if you want to be able to support your loved one for the long haul. If you don’t pay attention to your own needs, the stress of caretaking can easily lead to burnout and take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind.
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to ensure you maintain balance in your life like ensuring you are getting enough sleep, eating well, and looking after your own health. Finding an outlet of your own to share what you are going through can help release any pressure you may be feeling, as well as make time for your own life and hobbies.
SpouseLink strives to provide a community and to serve as a resource to military spouses all across the country. As you learn how to help a loved one with PTSD, know you’re never alone.