Learning how to help someone with PTSD is one of those blurred-line tasks that few of us master. Sleepless nights, anger that comes from nowhere, and a sudden inability to focus are symptoms caused by reliving past traumas. Those who have PTSD experience emotional distancing. Avoiding people and places likely to trigger a flashback are common. The walls PTSD sufferers build are medieval by design; robust, tall, and unassailable.
People with PTSD exhibit an unwillingness or inability to share traumatic experiences. This makes learning how to help someone with PTSD a challenge. Loved ones feel sidelined, desperate to reach out in some way. Triggers often appear to the person experiencing PTSD but remain hidden from view for everyone else. Differentiating between a random sleepless night and a full-blown panic attack is no easy feat. At times, an individual with PTSD will proactively attempt to hide the condition via a lack of transparency or outright deflection.
And through it all, there are always the questions. What can I do? How can I shoulder some of the burdens? When does my loved one start trusting me enough to let me share their pain? How can I help someone with PTSD?
What is PTSD?
Few of us have escaped traumatic experiences entirely. From the loss of close friends or family to nasty accidents, brushes with death, health scares, and setbacks, adversity is part of the human condition.
When a person experiences symptoms for at least one month following a traumatic event, they are said to have PTSD. Signs do not always manifest immediately. The traumatic event triggering the PTSD might have occurred years before. The symptoms themselves manifest in four main ways.
The common perception among those who want to know how to help people with PTSD is that flashbacks always occur. Flashbacks do occur for some people with PTSD, but not all. Nightmares or sudden, terrifying thoughts appearing from nowhere are also common for some. These episodes tend to come suddenly and at inconvenient times. The feeling of loss of control or inability to control such incidents often categorizes PTSD.
For many people with PTSD, thinking about their ordeal is a challenging thing to do. Avoiding triggers may become an obsession. A variety of avoidance techniques often become ingrained. Attempts by individuals to steer clear of conversations, thoughts, or places that remind them of the underlying trauma can become obsessive. Without the context of a PTSD diagnosis, loved ones are often confused by such sudden changes in behavior. Refusal to engage in once-routine activities can put a strain on relationships.
Being always on edge is another typical symptom of PTSD that can manifest itself in a variety of ways. For some, insomnia is an ever-present threat that leaves individuals feeling drained and unable to focus. Others find themselves easily angered by inconsequential things. Having difficulty with concentration and a persistent feeling of anxiety are also shared experiences for those with PTSD. This feeling of excessive tension is difficult to sustain and is one reason why people with PTSD need to seek professional help.
Mood and cognition
The isolation individuals with PTSD feel is often one of the hardest aspects of the disorder to endure. Feelings of betrayal and mistrust usually go hand-in-hand with depression, guilt, shame, and most-typically, self-blame. Memory lapses and confusion also play a part in creating the sense that they are suffering alone. Learning how to help people with PTSD requires a full understanding of how powerless individuals feel when it comes to controlling their mood.
How Common Is PTSD in Ex-Service Personnel?
Thankfully for those seeking advice on how to help someone with PTSD, there is significant research. The number of ex-servicemen who have PTSD varies. Rates among veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom stand somewhere between 11 and 20 percent. The rates among Vietnam War vets are estimated to have been as high as 30 percent.
While such figures are shocking, it is important to note that effective treatments are available. While some PTSD develops into a chronic condition, in many other cases, the effects are short-lived. The short lifespan of PTSD is especially evident in those individuals who seek treatment. Regardless, the national average for PTSD diagnosis stands at 7 to 8 percent, so rates among service members are abnormally high.
There are, of course, several risk factors that exacerbate the chances of developing PTSD. Service personnel from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more susceptible. Misuse of drugs or alcohol can play a role in the development of PTSD as well. Lastly, pre-existing mental health issues increase the likelihood of developing PTSD.
Nobody is immune from the effects of PTSD. That is as true for military personnel as it is for the general population. Developing PTSD is not a sign of weakness. Different people process trauma in different ways. Where one person might walk away from an event unscathed, another might require hours of therapy before coming to terms with it.
Spotting the Signs
Although the symptoms of PTSD are easy to define, they are also easy to confuse with other less severe conditions. Sometimes an inability to sleep is unrelated to past traumatic events. Mood swings are not uncommon and are not exclusive to people with PTSD.
Often, emotional distancing is the first sign that something is wrong. A reluctance to talk things over is one of the first symptoms. Those wishing to learn how to help someone with PTSD have an uphill struggle from the start. It is for this reason that seeking professional help is of such vital importance.
How to help someone with PTSD
Convincing someone with PTSD to seek help is often a difficult task. For that reason, anyone wanting to learn how to help someone with PTSD should arm themselves with a little knowledge. Understanding the treatments available is the first step in how to help someone with PTSD. There is no need to develop a comprehensive understanding PTSD. Knowing a basic overview of PTSD is sufficient.
Treating PTSD with Medication
PTSD is a notoriously difficult condition to tackle, but figuring out how to help someone with PTSD has led to some useful innovations. There is no precognitive way of knowing which treatment will work for any person. Often, it is a combination of treatments working in tandem that proves the most effective remedy.
There are no medications specifically tailored to the treatment of PTSD, but there are some pharmaceutical remedies available. Antidepressants such as Zoloft or Paxil commonly receive a trial. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by inhibiting the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin. When they work as intended, they can provide people with PTSD a more stable emotional baseline from which to tackle the disorder.
Certain anti-anxiety medications such as Benzodiazepines are also used to treat the severe anxiety that PTSD sometimes causes. The potential for abuse associated with such medications prohibits their use as a long-term solution.
Recently, scientists have started to experiment with the uses of MDMA as a treatment for PTSD. More commonly known as the street-drug ecstasy, it allows patients to re-live past trauma without dealing with the associated anxiety. Often used in combination with psychoanalysis techniques, a growing number of clinicians find it a potentially useful but radical treatment. Additional research may alter its availability as a clinical tool.
Treating PTSD with Psychotherapy
Learning how to help people with PTSD requires time and patience. It is for this reason that professional psychiatric care is one of the most common ways of treating the disorder. Many of the medications available for those with PTSD are of little use without associated psychotherapy.
The three main approaches to PTSD treatment with psychotherapy are CPT, EMDR, and CBT.
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
CPT has been one of the most common and effective treatments for people with PTSD. The process begins with a few sessions on psychoeducation. Patients are encouraged to examine PTSD thoughts and feelings in depth. As the individual learns more about the nature of the ideas driving the disorder, they gain greater control. Over time, this helps to mitigate feelings of helplessness.
In the second stage of therapy, patients write an account of the traumatic experience that led to the development of PTSD. This report is read out loud in the very next session, a process that aids in the identification of unhelpful thoughts and feelings. These are then set aside, ready for the final phase of therapy.
During the final few sessions, the individual learns to evaluate and modify beliefs related to the traumatic event. Thus, a patient might learn to stop blaming themselves for an action they had no part in. The patient can begin to rationalize survivor guilt, then follow any number of paths leading to eventual closure.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR, a relatively new form of therapy, is growing in popularity. A session generally lasts around 90 minutes and involves patients following a therapist’s fingers with their eyes while the therapist moves them in front of the patient. Clinical trials demonstrate that this rhythmic movement of the eye has a calming effect.
The process moves on through two stages. First, the action of EMDR lessens the hold that emotionally charged memories have over the patient. Second, the state of calm allows the therapist to ask questions relating to the disturbing event thought to be the cause of a patient's PTSD.
By removing or reducing anxiety associated with the event, an individual can better process the trauma. As with cognitive processing therapy, this often leads to closure.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This form of psychotherapy concentrates on addressing disturbing or destructive thought patterns. It aims to teach patients how to interpret and better deal with such thoughts and situations. Patients are encouraged to apply real-world evidence to negative thoughts. By doing so, they reveal inherent contradictions and learn how to control intrusive thoughts that lead to negative behaviors.
Treatment is generally short-term and tends to be a cheaper option.
Sometimes therapy isn’t an option. One of the more crippling aspects of PTSD stems from the feeling of isolation. The isolation itself is a root cause of a patient's natural unwillingness to confront the issues at hand. As we have seen from the application of EMDR, engaging in therapeutic activity requires some reliving of the underlying trauma. Fighting injurious thoughts is the last thing most people with PTSD want to do.
When trying to understand how to help someone with PTSD, it is crucial to treat reticence seriously. When faced with frustrating obstinacy, raising the prospect of self-help might be an excellent place to start. Inviting someone with PTSD to explore coping mechanisms on their own might feel empowering and help overcome feelings of associated guilt.
Help groups and charities
There is no substitute for professional help. Self-medication is one of the more common ways in which people self-tackle an expression of PTSD. Such a response not only carries associated risks of substance abuse in many cases, it also merely masks the pain. In many cases, it exacerbates the condition.
There is a wealth of self-help information and material available online and many organizations on hand to provide free, confidential assistance. The National Center for PTSD, for example, offers coping guides, alongside a vast library of literature, apps, and videos. Working in tandem with charities such as the Soldiers Project, such institutions serve as an excellent resource for persons wanting to learn how to help people with PTSD.
Various crisis lines also operate 24-7 to provide a sympathetic ear to veterans who call. Sometimes the mere act of passing on a helpline number can do a world of good. Merely encouraging a loved one to examine their options is a great first step. The next step, seeking formal therapy, might need more of a nudge before bearing fruit.
Help for Loved Ones
There is a natural tendency to avoid trying to help someone with a problem. When someone has PTSD, it affects the people around them in profound ways. It can lead to relationship problems, anxiety, and depression and often has a direct influence on happiness and well-being.
Learning how to help someone with PTSD involves a certain amount of self-analysis. Feelings of guilt at your own inability to cope are not uncommon. People are often too concerned with the plight of loved ones to recognize the strains that they are putting on themselves. Regardless, trying to help a loved one through a painful process while ignoring yourself is inadvisable.
Organizations like the National Center for PTSD are well aware of the importance of taking care of the caregivers. They offer programs designed to help families who are trying to learn how to help someone with PTSD.
Living with PTSD has many hidden costs. Often, people with PTSD are unable to work. Medical bills add further burden to an already delicate situation. Fortunately, for veterans at least, help is available.
Your first stop when trying to learn how to help someone with PTSD is the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs. Listed on their site are the various forms of financial aid available to veterans. These benefit packages include disability compensation, dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), and, special monthly compensation (SMC).
The VA also offers aid to those veterans with disabilities who need help with housing and insurance. Details of the three main programs, Adapted Housing grants, Service-Disable Veterans' Insurance, and Veterans' Mortgage Life Insurance, are available on the VA website.
Putting Things Back Together
No matter how bleak things might seem to those with PTSD, it is essential to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Even outside of the Department of Veteran Affairs, organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Give an Hour work tirelessly to help those struggling with PTSD.
While no amount of therapy is a guarantee of success, the sheer wealth of options available to veterans gives them the best possible chance of returning to a semblance of normality. And normality is the one thing most people with PTSD desire above all else.
Because sometimes it is the non-physical injury that hurts the most. The conflicted emotional state of someone with PTSD is not something one can grin and bear. Time, love, patience, and understanding are vital ingredients in any roadmap to recovery. And for those who want to know how to help someone with PTSD, knowing that help is out there is more than mere comfort. It's something of a godsend.