The Dos and Don'ts of Loving Someone With PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is complicated, at times difficult to understand and undoubtedly looks shockingly different for everyone. Some symptoms depend on the nature of the trauma; a sexual assault/abuse survivor might be afraid of touch, whereas a combat survivor might be afraid of loud noises. There are some commonalities for most people with PTSD though, and taking the time to understand someone you love with this disorder can help a lot.
Do take the time to understand their triggers and symptoms.
About a month ago, one of my friends asked very gentle questions about what certain symptoms feel like to me and what causes them. This is a safe person that I trust and he gave me full permission to not answer anything I was uncomfortable with. Being able to share with someone what certain things feel like makes me feel so much less alone in my struggles.
Don’t pressure the person to talk about things they’re uncomfortable with.
I will admit this is more of a “human rule” than a “PTSD rule,” but bear in mind that talking about trauma can trigger PTSD symptoms. If we’re talking about things that are hard or I look uncomfortable answering a question, feel free to remind me I don’t have to answer. Sometimes this can help me trust you more.
Do offer to listen to what he/she wants to say.
Trauma is one of those funny things that makes you feel like you are constantly different from everyone else. Living with a brain that replays the worst moments of my life in vivid detail all day and all night has a tendency to make me feel like I’m alone on an island in the middle of an ocean. When a friend or loved one offers to listen, it can feel like there’s someone with me on the island for a little while.
Don’t offer platitudes.
Saying things like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or anything that encourages the person to feel like they have to just move on can increase feelings of isolation. It also creates guilt and feelings of failure for being stuck with a malfunctioning brain.
Do ask someone if they want to be touched.
At times, I crave touch more than anything. I crave the comfort of physical contact with a safe person. At other times, even a gentle nudge can send my brain spiraling into a whirlwind of reliving trauma. If you aren’t sure what someone’s comfort level is, ask if and how they want to be touched. You can ask multiple times, too! My answer one day may be very different from the next.
Don’t intentionally startle them.
One of my good friends snuck up behind me one day, grabbed my shoulders and yelled “Boo!” in my ear. I let out a loud, guttural yell and sent my phone flying through the air, much to the shock of the people sitting near me. My friend laughed and apologized for startling me, but also thought my reaction was hilarious. I went along with the comical nature of it, but it completely left me shaken for hours. One symptom of PTSD is hyper-vigilance, or being constantly aware of my surroundings to search for any potential threats. Startling me on purpose makes this symptom a whole lot worse.
Do ask what you can do to help.
Sometimes, things like going to the grocery store or picking up my medications take more energy than I have. Even though I don’t often take people up on their offers for help, it means the world when someone asks what they can do.
Don’t take it personally when I cancel plans.
Living with this takes a lot of energy. It drains every part of my being almost constantly. When I cancel plans it doesn’t mean I don’t want to see you, it just means that my demons might be winning that day.
Do offer to just be with me.
Sometimes, having someone just come watch a movie with me keeps my mind at ease for a little while. It also helps me keep myself safe from any self-destructive behavior. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just sit with me even if we are both reading separate books just so that I’m not alone. Let me know that you’re in this battle with me and that I’m not going to scare you away.
Don’t be afraid of me.
People with PTSD have a reputation for being dangerous and violent. Most people with PTSD pose no risk to others. While at our worst we can sometimes pose a risk to ourselves, people with PTSD are often so afraid of becoming as horrible as the people who hurt us that we would never hurt another person intentionally.
Do remind me you love me… no matter what.
Let me know you’re with me. Let me know you’re on my side. Let me know that you are here for me no matter how bad things feel. Let me know that the monsters that terrify me won’t scare you away.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Thinkstock photo via KarenHBlack