We’re familiar with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in veterans and survivors of wartime violence, but anyone can develop PTSD from living through a harrowing experience. Outside of combat, violent assault, rape, serious car accidents, and so forth, are all causes of PTSD. As well, vicarious PTSD takes place when someone is a witness to suffering or other profoundly upsetting events, such as caregiving for a critically ill loved one.
Helping someone cope with PTSD requires patience and an understanding of the disorder. People with PTSD demonstrate the following symptoms:
- Re-experiencing: Flashbacks are one of the most well-known symptoms of PTSD. Nightmares about the setting event, as well as hallucinations, are also common.
- Avoiding: People with PTSD will attempt to avoid anything or anyone that reminds them of the traumatic event. The connection may not seem apparent to friends or family members, but for the person with PTSD, it’s significant.
- Increased psychological and physiological arousal: Hyper-vigilance is another hallmark symptom of PTSD. This level of vigilance can happen on a conscious and unconscious level. It’s exhausting for the sufferer and causes problems with sleep, maintaining an even temper, outbursts of anger, irritability, an elevated pulse, and an elevated startle response.
- Pessimistic mood, negative outlook. People with PTSD often feel they have no future; they may think of themselves as being “ruined” by their experiences. Feeling hopeless and unable to change their situation is also a common experience.
For a person with PTSD, the nervous system becomes, in a sense, jammed into the high-alert stage and remains stuck there. They never truly revert back from feeling like they’re in a life-or-death situation. A person with PTSD understands cognitively that they’re no longer in danger, but during a state of extreme terror or horror and fear, a person’s nervous system undergoes changes that can be hard to undo.
The good news is that PTSD is treatable and responds well to psychotherapy with a therapist trained in PTSD resolution. Because many people with PTSD also suffer from at least one of the major depressive disorders, medication may be a necessary part of treatment.
But you as a concerned loved one can also help care for a person with PTSD.
Helping Someone with PTSD
People with PTSD are usually reluctant to discuss their situation, even though they’re having significant problems. However, you can be a big help in their recovery process by listening and being present.
Listen to them and be present. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the event that traumatized them over and over. Talking about the trauma is one of the first steps to healing, and it’s a big one. It’s important to listen, even though you may get tired of hearing the same story. Remember, you don’t have to offer advice or try to solve the person’s problems. Being a sympathetic listener is all by itself helping to reduce the PTSD sufferer’s pain.
Being present is more than just being in the same location. It’s being aware of the other person and willing to listen uncritically, without judgement and with criticism. Being present also means that when you listen, you do so without getting into a “problem solving” mindset.
Involve them in socializing. People with PTSD often withdraw from others. A fear of losing control around other people is partly to blame for this social withdrawal, but avoiding certain situations or kinds of stimulation, like crowds or loud noises, is often part of it. It’s always a good idea to ask what the individual with PTSD would like to do, although you may not get a clear answer immediately. It’s important not to give up. Keep extending offers to be around others. Activities with just yourself or a few people are usually the best way to go at the beginning. Crowds of people, particularly in situations where the person with PTSD could not make a quick, unobtrusive exit, are daunting to people at the onset of their PTSD recovery.
Encourage them. A negative mindset and feeling “stuck” is a major part of PTSD. Encourage a person with PTSD by helping them find real, identifiable steps towards getting better. Wall posters with encouraging platitudes don’t count. General statements like “You’re going to be ok; you got this” tend to make the person with PTSD feel worse. These kinds of statements don’t offer help or guidance. That’s why encouragement needs to go along with concrete steps toward improving their situation. For example, helping that person get their driver’s license renewed or living room painted—tasks you can do together that are small, perhaps even seemingly trivial, is encouraging. It’s not so much the task as it is being around other people and making small steps toward goals, even if the steps are tiny.
Can TMS Therapy Help My Loved One’s PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) causes changes in critical areas of the brain that control how we perceive threats and how we control emotions like fear and anger. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) uses pulses of powerful magnetic fields to help the brain become more able to regulate emotion. Although TMS is not an outright cure, it helps the brain return to a more normal level of self-regulating, reducing symptoms.
TMS is non-invasive, requires no sedation, no anesthesia, and no hospitalization. Many people experience no side-effects, and the process takes less than an hour and extends for 5 days a week for 4 to 6 weeks. TMS is covered by most insurance companies, including Tricare for US veterans.
This blog post is meant to be educational in nature and does not replace the advice of a medical professional. See full disclaimer.
Aliev, G., Beeraka, N. M., Nikolenko, V. N., Svistunov, A. A., & Rozhnova, T. (2020). Neurophysiology and Psychopathology Underlying PTSD and Recent Insights into the PTSD Therapies—A Comprehensive Review. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 9(9), 2951. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm9092951
How PTSD Affects The Brain. BrainLine. (2019, May 7). https://www.brainline.org/article/how-ptsd-affects-brain. Accessed electronically May 3rd, 2021.
Symptoms of PTSD. Mind. (n.d.). https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-and-complex-ptsd/symptoms/. Accessed electronically May 3rd, 2021.
VA.gov: Veterans Affairs. How Can I Help? (2018, August 10). https://www.ptsd.va.gov/family/how_help.asp. Accessed electronically May 3rd, 2021.