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Having a partner, family member or friend suffering from PTSD can be hard. Knowing how to support them as well as look after yourself can help. 

PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that people may suffer with after experiencing a traumatic event, whether that’s intentional (such as sexual or physical abuse) or unintentional (such as a car accident). About 12% of people living in Australia will experience PTSD in their lifetime according to SANE Australia, with serious car accidents found to be the leading cause. PTSD is the second most common mental health condition after depression, writes the University of Melbourne, it can have a profound impact on individuals and their families.

Treatment for PTSD

It’s recommended that people suffering from PTSD speak to their GP or mental health professional. There are three broad categories of treatment for PTSD, psychological treatments (talking therapies), physical treatments (medications), exercise, mindfulness and self-help. Often a combination of treatments works best. 

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Living through a traumatic event and then suffering with PTSD as a result is tough. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare characterises PTSD by the following symptoms:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event or events in vivid intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares, typically accompanied by strong or overwhelming emotions, particularly fear or horror, and strong physical sensations.
  • Avoiding thoughts and memories of the event or events, or avoidance of activities, situations, or people reminiscent of the event or events.
  • Persistent perceptions of a heightened current threat, which, for example, might lead to hypervigilance, or reacting beyond what would normally be expected to something like an unexpected noise.

How do people with PTSD behave and why?

The stress people suffer when living with PTSD is constant, both physically and emotionally. 

It’s common for people with PTSD to seem irritable, moody, distant or down, which can manifest into anger, which may be directed at you. Although never a positive experience, It’s good to remember that anger can be a way to cope with other feelings such as grief, helplessness, or guilt. Irritability could be due to trouble sleeping, which is common for PTSD sufferers along with difficulty managing emotions.

How can I support a loved one who is suffering from PTSD?

Understanding there is no quick fix for a psychological condition such as PTSD is a good starting point - you won’t be able to make your friend or loved one’s PTSD go away, but your support, understanding and patience will be invaluable in helping them get through. 

Spending time with them doing normal things is one way to provide social support, along with encouraging them to spend time with friends, exercising or doing activities or hobbies that they enjoy. 

Don’t pressure them to talk about their traumatic experience, let them take the lead, and let them know you are available to listen if they ever want to talk. The Black Dog Institute recommends that you encourage the person to tell you about their feelings. They also recommend the following:

  • Help find professional help; offer to make appointments with a GP or other health professional. 
  • Keep focused on recovery. Dealing with the trauma and getting better can be a long and complicated process. Encourage them to keep going and acknowledge that getting better can be challenging. Comment on small positive changes you notice and keep them hopeful.
  • Plan positive experiences. Try to keep your loved one involved with family and friends, and activities they enjoy. Try to keep them social, do small things together as a family and celebrate positive events like birthdays.

Suffering from trauma damages people’s ability to trust others and even themselves. You can help rebuild trust and safety for your loved one, by working towards rebuilding your loved one’s sense of security. Ways to do this include:  

  • Express your commitment to the relationship. Let your loved one know that you’re here for the long haul so they feel loved and supported.
  • Create routines. Structure and predictable schedules can restore a sense of stability and security to people with PTSD. Creating routines could involve getting your loved one to help with groceries or housework, for example, maintaining regular times for meals.
  • Minimise stress at home. Try to make sure your loved one has space and time for rest and relaxation.
  • Speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among people with PTSD that their future is limited.
  • Keep your promises. Help rebuild trust by showing that you’re trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on what you say you’re going to do.
  • Emphasise your loved one’s strengths. Tell your loved one you believe they’re capable of recovery and point out all of their positive qualities and successes.
  • Look for ways to empower your loved one. Rather than doing things for them that they’re capable of doing for themselves, it’s better to build their confidence and self-trust by giving them more choices and control.

When in conversation with your loved one, here’s what you should avoid doing, inspired by HelpGuide:

  • Tell your loved one everything is going to be okay, or callously give simple answers that will minimise the gravity of their PTSD.
  • Invalidate or minimise your loved one’s traumatic experience.
  • Tell your loved one what to do, or offer unsolicited advice.
  • Compare your loved one’s PTSD with your own personal experiences or feelings. 
  • Use your loved one’s PTSD as a reason for other issues or problems in family life. 
  • Give ultimatums or threats to your loved one.
  • Compare your loved one’s PTSD with others who you consider to be coping better. 
  • Tell your loved one that it could be worse.

Remember to be kind to yourself

Note saying self care is not selfish

Dealing with a loved one with PTSD is hard and it can be difficult not to take it personally at times, especially if their anger or frustration is being directed at you. In order for you to be there for them you need to make time for yourself in order to recharge and enjoy yourself so you're able to support them.

Acknowledge that it can be a tiring and upsetting time for you as well, as you are supporting your friend or loved one through PTSD, dealing with their emotions and behaviour. It’s important to take breaks and maintain your own health. Do this by spending time with friends, staying active, eating well and getting enough sleep. You may need support too, look into joining a group for people with PTSD and their loved ones to meet people going through the same things as you. 

You could also try:

  • Cultivating your own support system. Lean on other family members, trusted friends, your own therapist or support group, or your faith community. 
  • Make time for your own life. Don’t give up friends, hobbies, or activities that make you happy. It’s important to have things in your life that you look forward to.
  • Spread the responsibility. Ask other family members and friends for assistance so you can take a break. You may also want to seek out respite services in your community.
  • Set boundaries. Be realistic about what you’re capable of giving. Know your limits, communicate them to your family members and others involved, and stick to them.

Australia’s guidelines for PTSD are currently being updated and are open for public consultation. For more information or to contribute click on the link above.

Patrick MacDonald
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