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10 Things Not to Say to Someone With PTSD (And Some Alternatives)

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Some people want you to heal quickly. When a traumatic event occurs in your life, those around you often gather to support you and make sure you feel loved and cared for; they tell you they understand how frightening the experience must have been, about how they don’t even know what they would do in your situation.

• What is PTSD?

But then days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months and months sometimes end up turning into years. And the longer you’re afraid because of what happened to you, the less people tend to support you, because the may believe you’re over-reacting or just trying to seek attention.

The last thing those of us with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) want is attention — the first thing we want is support, the feeling of landing on something solid after falling so far down the rabbit hole we think we may have traveled father than Alice in “Alice in Wonderland.”

If you have a loved one in your life with post-traumatic stress disorder, here is a list of things not to say to them, as well as an alternative to use instead:

  1. What not to say: “It wasn’t even life-threatening.”
    Alternative: “I know you’re scared because of it, but you’re safe now.”
  2. What not to say: “People have been through worse.”
    Alternative: “You can get through this hardship.”
  3. What not to say: “Stop over-reacting.”
    Alternative: “I understand you’re scared, but I’m going to be right here next to you the whole time so that nothing happens. Let’s do this.”
  4. What not to say: “You’re faking it.”
    Alternative: There is no alternative response to this — but there is an alternative reaction: educate yourself on the disorder so you can better understand what your loved one might be feeling.
  5. What not to say: “I’ve been through something similar and I don’t have PTSD, so you don’t have it either.”
    Alternative: Again, educate yourself. You do not know someone’s story; maybe this event was the straw that broke the camel’s back (or you know, the event that “broke” the brain). Not everyone who’s been held up at gun-point has post-traumatic stress disorder, just like not everyone who’s been raped haas PTSD. Someone who was shot in the ankle may be perfectly OK mentally, but that doesn’t mean someone having been robbed is.
  6. What not to say: “You realize you’re being completely illogical right now, right?”
    Alternative: “I know that your brain is telling you that everywhere you go and everything you do could cause a trigger/you to feel as if you’re in danger. Try to keep repeating to yourself that you are safe, no one is going to hurt you and you will be OK.”
  7. What not to say: “Stop being so dramatic.”
    Alternative: “Deep breath. Let’s talk through this. Why do you feel this way?”
  8. What not to say: “You said you were OK.”
    Alternative: Don’t always believe us when we say we were OK. We’re often not OK. We’re freaking out. So instead of just leaving us be, maybe do something that will make us feel a little better: bring us some bath bombs, some chocolate or come over and play video games. Anything to make us feel as if you not only care, but you care enough to bring us something that could potentially make us feel OK, if even for a short time.
  9. What not to say: “How was I supposed to know (fill in statement here)?”
    Alternative: The thing about those of us with PTSD, is we also often have high levels of anxiety and depression. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, most of the time we don’t tell you exactly what’s happening in our heads. And then we may be angry at you for not knowing about what’s happening in our heads. Try not to get angry with us; the anger we have towards you is part of PTSD. Simply listen to what we’re saying and respond with something along the lines of: “I had no idea you were feeling this way. Let’s talk it through and figure out what is causing these feelings.” Or, “I know you’re angry I didn’t notice this, and I’m sorry for whatever signs I may have missed, let’s just take a deep breath and talk this through.”
  10. What not to say: “Get over it already!”
    Alternative: Similar to “you’re being over-dramatic or attention-seeking” — we cannot just get over this event. It is in our lives forever, whether we like it or not. We have to re-learn how to live our lives with this being a part of us now, and that can be hard. And it can take a lot of time and effort and an outlandish amount of support from friends and family. Never say this to someone with PTSD; go ahead and think it all you want, but don’t ever say it if you value that person in your life. Part of the healing process in many PTSD patients is ridding themselves of toxic people. The moment you say this phrase, you become toxic to those who have PTSD, and you will soon find yourself without that person in your life. Instead, try something like: “Help me to understand why this is still impacting your life so much, because I just don’t get it,” or “Why does this seem to be affecting you so hard? I want to understand what’s going on so I can be better at supporting you when you need me.”

All 10 of these statements have been said to me — by family, friends and acquaintances. Please be careful what you say to anybody with any kind of mental health issue, disorder, chronic illness or disease. Negativity really impacts us, and it only makes us want to give up on ourselves and our life even more than we already do.

I have narrowed my circle of friends to next to nothing due to the toxicity of some I allowed to be around me. And since then I have not only started healing for real, but I’ve also started gaining confidence in myself and my life.

Getty image by AntonioGuillem

Originally published: January 15, 2020
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