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How You Might Be Invalidating a Loved One's PTSD

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The trauma we experience in life changes us, for better or worse. In a small or large way, it has an effect.

• What is PTSD?

Getting bitten by a dog can cause a fear of dogs. If you almost drowned, you might be afraid of water. Trauma can create fear that usually stems from survival instincts and are natural in their own ways. Most of these types of fears go away on their own as time goes on. They can be cured, or at least lessened. We all experience fear — it’s a natural and helpful emotion. There are always many degrees of fear, but then there is what can develop from this fear — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When you experience trauma — when you live through an extremely traumatic event, something scary or shocking — the changes can go deeper. It can go past the rational and plunge into irrational — from that natural fear that might go away over time into a potentially debilitating disorder. It can cause PTSD. It’s important to note that not all PTSD is chronic; some can disappear after a few months or with treatment even sooner, plus not everyone who has been through a high level of trauma will develop PTSD.

One thing I’ve run into with this disorder is that many people have the notion it’s something only soldiers face, or only those who have experienced something physical, such as a car accident, a gunshot, the tragedy of sexual assault, accidents or disasters. Something dramatic that would be on the news.

In fact, PTSD can arise from many other situations. The trauma might be suddenly losing a loved one, seeing someone else hurt, losing a job, emotional or domestic abuse — many events that to an outside view might not even seem that traumatic. Even that dog bite can cause PTSD.  When others don’t understand these are real causes, it can become even harder for those living with it.

Friends and family may question or doubt what you’re feeling and how you’re struggling — that what you’re going through can’t be that bad because you haven’t been to war, or been in a car crash, etc. What they don’t seem to realize is that PTSD can’t be explained or rationalized away. It can’t be excused or discredited; it’s real and it can happen to anyone. When you invalidate someone’s struggle, you’re shutting them down, forcing them to feel defensive, belittling them, causing them to question themselves enough to not reach out for help they desperately need, or even silencing them when they need to speak out. This is why it’s so important to inform people about this disorder and how deep it can seep into someone’s life and their ability to function.

It’s important to recognize and see PTSD for what it is — a mental illness. It’s not someone being dramatic, not an overreaction, not attention seeking; it’s a real disorder that causes great pain and changes someone’s life. It’s an awful feeling when you’ve been triggered, are breaking down, falling apart, melting into panic, and then someone says this is not important — that what has triggered me is no big deal, that it’s “normal” and I shouldn’t be having the reaction I am. Because then I’m not only struggling with this disorder; I’m feeling ashamed or feeling I’m at fault. It may seem like nothing, but with PTSD the smallest nothing can be the biggest something.

When someone tells you they have PTSD, don’t ask them to justify it. Don’t tell them they’re being silly, that other people who have the same experience are fine so they should be too. Don’t belittle or judge, because it’s a very real and serious disorder. It’s not silly or invalid. They’re not overreacting. They aren’t going to be fine just because you think they should be. Instead, offer judgment-free support, listen to them, ask them how you can help, maybe even do some research and learn more about it. Be there for them, and above all — recognize PTSD is not a choice, it’s a mental illness

Photo by Olaia Irigoien on Unsplash

Originally published: September 13, 2017
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