PTSD and Trauma: How to Support Someone You Love

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By Carlene Lehmann, MA

Having a family member or close friend with PTSD and trauma can be hard. More than anything, you want to support and comfort a loved one who is suffering from post-traumatic stress or struggling to recover from a traumatic event. But you don’t know what to do. The usual ways of relating don’t work. You feel almost as hopeless and out of control as you imagine your loved one must be feeling.

What can you do?

Learn

One of the best things you can do is to learn everything you can about PTSD and trauma. You can’t truly know what your loved one is suffering, but being as informed as possible will help you make better choices. Encourage your loved one to get professional help. Facilitate his finding and participating in a support group. Offer to accompany your loved one to the doctor’s office or to support him by keeping track of medicine and appointments.

Listen

Though your instinct may be to take charge or give advice, it’s best to step back and let your loved one indicate how you can help. Your patient willingness to listen without judgment is more valuable than your words of wisdom. Let her know that she can trust you to be there for her.

Beware of Triggers

When you talk, talk positively. Be available when your loved one wants to talk, but don’t push him to talk about the trauma. That may trigger a flashback. Learn what triggers flashbacks so you can help avoid them.

Help with Sociability

PTSD and trauma make socializing difficult. Plan things to do together. Encourage contact with close friends. Family activities like going to dinner or a movie may help to keep things more normal and less stressful. Exercise together: walk, go for a bike ride. Exercise is good for both of you.

Give Space

Don’t try to force your loved one to communicate or to join in activities. He may not want your help or your opinion. Withdrawing is a symptom of PTSD and trauma. He may not feel like talking. Group activities and being around other people may increase his anxiety. But be sure to let him know that you are there to help when he is ready.

Respect

Respect your loved one. Don’t minimize her feelings and symptoms. Don’t belittle what she is going through. Avoid remarks like telling her to “get over it.” This is hurtful and will only make things worse.

Recognize your loved one’s strengths and encourage self-esteem. She is not stupid or weak, she has a medical condition that interferes with her ability to cope the way she could before the trauma happened. Be patient with your loved one’s mistakes. Let her know you care by noticing when things are not going well.

Anger Management

Anger is often a cover for other emotions: grief, helplessness, guilt. If your loved one is having trouble coping with feelings of anger, know that the physical and emotional stress he or she is living with can lead to overreacting to ordinary stressful events.

Watch for the signs of anger: clenched fists, agitation, loud voice. When you see these signs, take steps to defuse the situation. Remain calm yourself. Give your loved one space. Don’t crowd or grab. Ask “What can I do to help you right now?” Suggest a timeout. And put safety first. If you can’t get your loved one to calm down, leave, lock yourself in a room, or call 911 if you fear he may hurt himself or others.

Take Care of Yourself

Finally, remember that you can’t care for someone else if you haven’t dealt with your own health and emotions. Find your own support system. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep. Get others involved in your loved one’s care. Set boundaries.

Believe in your loved one’s ability to recover. Believe in yourself.
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Carlene Lehmann is a marriage and family therapist associate with the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. She works with individuals and couples in their journeys to recover from traumatic life events. Contact her for scheduling at 512-270-4883, ext. 105.