Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex disorder that is the reaction to a traumatic event. Traumatic events that can result in PTSD often include war, rape, kidnapping, assault, natural disasters, car or planes crashes, terrorist attacks, sudden death of a loved one, sexual or physical abuse, extreme bullying, death threats, and childhood neglect. The symptoms of PTSD can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time. PTSD does not just affect the person with the condition; it also affects the loved ones who are involved in his or her life. If you are living with someone with PTSD, it is important to recognize how PTSD can affect your home life, learn how to deal with symptoms of PTSD that may arise, and help your loved one in as many ways as you can.
Dealing with Your Loved One’s Symptoms
Be aware of the common symptoms of PTSD. Because symptoms of PTSD change how a trauma survivor feels and acts, this can dramatically change the family life and affect everyone in the family. Trauma causes symptoms that can make it hard to get along with others or cause withdrawal. In order to live with someone dealing with PTSD it’s best to be mindful of their symptoms, there are also ways to help your loved one, and remember some important aspects of dealing with the disorder.
- Some of the symptoms central to PTSD include re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding reminders of the trauma, and increased anxiety and emotional arousal. Additional symptoms include anger and irritability, guilt or self-blame, substance abuse, feelings of betrayal, depression and hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and feelings, feeling alienated and alone, and physical aches and pains.
Give your loved one support during flashbacks. Re-experiencing the event can involve intrusive and upsetting memories of the event that your loved one experienced. This may also include flashbacks, where the sufferer feels like they are back in the trauma, or witnessing it as if it was happening in front of them. When your loved one is experiencing a flashback, give them space and keep them safe.
- Don’t ask a lot of questions of the person, simply be nearby in case they need you, and give them anything they need when the flashback is over. Individuals with PTSD often find it difficult to talk about their traumatic history. Give your loved one support without being too overbearing.
Help your loved one to cope with flashbacks by practicing relaxation techniques. Your loved one with PTSD may also re-experience the event by feeling intense distress when reminded of the trauma. This distress can lead to a physical response (i.e. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, and sweating). Symptoms like this can be helped by practicing relaxation techniques.
- One very powerful relaxation technique that could be used is deep breathing exercises. Have the person breathe in for four seconds, hold their breath for four seconds, and then release their breath slowly over the course of four seconds. Have them repeat this exercise until they feel calm.
Make your loved one feel safe in your relationship. After a traumatic experience, your loved one may have a hard time feeling safe, even in their own home. While you might not be able to promise that nothing bad will ever happen to them again, you can show that you are there to protect them and are fully committed to your relationship with them. Ways to make them feel safe include:
- Discuss plans for the future with your loved one to help them remember that their future is wide open and not limited.
- Keep your promises. Being reliable will help your loved one to begin to regain trust in people.
- Creating a routine that you both stick to. Routines can help them to feel that they have some semblance of control in their lives.
- Tell them that you believe that they will recover.
Try to understand why your loved one is withdrawn. Avoidance and withdrawal are two of the major symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms can lead to a loss of interest in favorite activities, a detachment from others, and emotional numbness. All of these things can be really hard on loved ones who are living with the person with PTSD. Remind yourself that your loved one’s withdrawal is not caused by a lack of caring, but by the pain that the person feels.
- Forgive your loved one when they decline to join in on family gatherings, but do not stop inviting them. Remain persistent.
- Let your loved one know that what they are experiencing is ok. While it might hurt you that your loved one chooses to decline your invitations to do things, you must let them know that you understand why they are feeling the way they are, and that you accept them for who they are.
Challenge your loved one’s distorted thoughts. Your loved one may harbor negative thoughts about themselves or the situation. Persist in challenging them about their negative thoughts regarding themselves or the future. Keep your tone light and express your love and positive thoughts without condemning them.
- For example, if your loved one feels like the traumatic experience is their fault, calmly reassure your loved one that it is not their fault. Remind them that they are being unnecessarily harsh on themselves.
Help your loved one to fall asleep at night. People with PTSD may find it hard to fall asleep at night. While you cannot control the thoughts that pop into your loved one’s head, you can create a healthy sleeping environment for your loved one.
- Practice relaxation techniques with your loved one before they go to bed. This can include deep breathing exercises.
- Set the temperature to a level that your loved one is comfortable at. Cooler temperatures can help to induce sleep. Work with your loved one to figure out what temperature is most conducive for sleep. This is generally between 65 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 to 22.2 degrees Celsius).
- Have your loved one turn off all electronics for at least an hour before they get into bed.
Help your loved one manage their irritability and anger. PTSD can make a person develop levels of irritability that they never experienced before the traumatic event. While your loved one will most likely go to therapy to work on their anger management, there are also ways that you can help your loved one control their irritability.
- Help your loved one to distance themselves from the upsetting situation before reacting. When you see your loved one getting upset, take them aside and tell them to go take a walk, or go to another room and take several deep breaths.
- Help your loved one to start journaling about their thoughts and emotions (especially anger). Journaling can help them express themselves without actually having to talk to anyone about their experience. Getting their feelings out on paper may help to reduce the likelihood of them feeling irritable when interacting with others.
Try to avoid the things that could startle your loved one. PTSD can cause an extreme jumpiness and hyper vigilance. Try to avoid starting your loved one, as this could inadvertently trigger a flashback. For instance, try to avoid making sudden movements around your loved one.
- Announce when you are home, or call out to them when they get home so that they know that you are there.
- Let them know when you are going to do something that involves a loud noise, like running the blender, or hammering a nail into a wall.
Be sure to give your loved one space. They are dealing with a lot and they may or may not be able to talk about their experience. You need to be tolerant of their needs during this time. Do not pressure your loved one into talking about what they are going through. Simply be there for them if they do feel like talking.
- Be prepared for your loved one to want to be alone one day, but supported the next. Give your loved one what they need.
- Offer support in other small ways. These supportive gestures could include taking them somewhere they usually enjoy, making them their favorite dinner, or just spending some quiet time with them.