How to Care for Someone Who Has PTSD

Posted on Jan 3, 2018

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Caring for someone who has PTSD can feel impossible at times, but your support is crucial to PTSD recovery. Learn some tips on how to help.

It can be hard to care for someone who has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As someone who has served as both a caretaker and a person in need of care, I intimately understand the difficulties interlaced in the care of people with trauma histories. For example, it can be hard for us to express joy and gratitude, even when we feel it. People with PTSD can be prone to anger, which may make us lash out verbally or even physically (though studies have shown that PTSD does not usually make people more prone to violence than the general population). PTSD is sometimes treatment resistant, meaning we feel so damaged, hopeless, or otherwise unworthy that we give up on getting better, or refuse to try in the first place. People with PTSD are sometimes drawn toward self-harming behaviors like cutting ourselves, or misusing drugs. It is indescribably painful to sit and hold the hand of someone you care for when that someone doesn’t appear to care about herself. But PTSD recovery relies on community support. We need you to keep holding our hands, even if we can’t find the words to tell you how much it means to us.

Why Support Is Essential To PTSD Recovery

There is a musician named Jason Webley who I have admired since I was a teenager and he was busking on the streets of Seattle. He plays the accordion and writes music that poets would envy. In a song titled “Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder,” he sings, “something more than these old feet brought me here/ so these feet can’t take me away./ No I didn’t get here on my own,/ whoever brought me here’s gonna have to take me home.”

I think of these lyrics whenever anyone tries to make me feel like I’m whining or acting unreasonable by expressing a need for outside support. The song may not be about PTSD, but that stanza perfectly describes the reality of life after trauma: we didn’t give ourselves PTSD. In most cases, we did not perpetrate our trauma upon ourselves. It would probably be unsafe in many instances to expect whomever caused our trauma to help us overcome it, but we do need outside support. We didn’t get PTSD on our own; we can’t heal our PTSD on our own.

That doesn’t mean people with PTSD can’t or shouldn’t do the work of recovery. As unfair as it is, the main burden of trauma recovery falls on the person who experienced the trauma. But it can make all the difference to have people in our lives who care enough to support us through times that are overwhelming, or stand by our side to celebrate small victories.

What You Can Do To Help

If someone in your life has PTSD, you can choose to help that person recover. Here are four simple but important ways you can help, from my position as a person with PTSD who has also loved people with PTSD (please note, however, that I am not a mental health professional):

  1. Practice forgiveness: as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, people suffering from acute PTSD may engage in self-harming behaviors, refuse treatment, and even lash out at loved ones. These acts may appear to stem from laziness or spite, but more likely originate from a place of deep fear, shame, and pain. If you practice abundant forgiveness and compassion, you help your loved one view your relationship as one that is safe and loving. This doesn’t mean you need to accept abuse, however, so if you feel that this person’s actions cross that line, tell him. If he continues to behave abusively, there may be another issue at play besides just PTSD.
  2. Reach out: people with PTSD frequently engage in avoidance behaviors, which include social isolation. While I don’t recommend forcing people with PTSD to do activities they find uncomfortable, it can help to reinforce your friendship by reaching out, inviting her out often, or visiting her home if she doesn’t feel safe going out. I recently had a close friend come to town for the holidays. I was undergoing a lot of stress, leading me to feel exhausted, depressed, and reclusive–to the point that I tried to cancel plans to see my friend. Instead, he offered to come to my home instead of going out. I’m glad he pushed for us to see each other because socializing was ultimately more relieving and healthy than staying in bed watching science fiction shows, like I would have otherwise done.
  3. Pay attention: because PTSD is a disorder that often comes with debilitating shame and self-doubt, those of us who have it don’t always tell others when we need help. Sometimes it’s because we don’t think anyone will care; other times it’s because we don’t feel worthy of help. In some cases, we don’t even realize how badly we’re doing. But if you care for someone with PTSD, watch his social cues. Whether that’s a dip in social media use, or evidence of self-harming behaviors; if you notice your friend acting differently, talk to him about it. Don’t push him, but do remind him he can count on you, and that he matters and deserves help.
  4. Don’t give up: from my perspective as an abuse survivor, this may be the most important of these tips. Don’t give up. Even when she has a symptomatic relapse. Even when it seems she may never get better, or like she doesn’t care whether or not you’re around. She cares (believe me), and she needs to know you’ll be around no matter what. There is nothing more healing than the experience of unconditional love.


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