Coping With PTSD

The effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be far-reaching and debilitating. The symptoms of PTSD can have a negative impact on your mental health, physical health, work, and relationships. You may feel isolated, have trouble maintaining a job, be unable to trust other people, and have difficulty controlling or expressing your emotions.

Learning healthy strategies for coping with PTSD is possible and can offer a sense of renewal, hope and control over your life. There are a variety of areas in our lives that can be impacted by the symptoms of PTSD and, in order to work toward a healthy recovery, it is important to give attention to each area.

Why Healthy Coping Skills Are Important

If you have PTSD, you are at much greater risk of developing a number of other mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. For example, researchers have found that people with PTSD are about six times as likely as someone without PTSD to develop depression and about five times as likely to develop another anxiety disorder.

People with PTSD are six times as likely as someone without PTSD to attempt suicide. High rates of deliberate self-harm have also been found among people with PTSD.

Social Coping Strategies

Trying to explain your experience to others can be challenging. Not only can it be difficult to talk with people about the traumatic event itself, but it can be even more challenging to describe to others some of the symptoms you have been experiencing since the event.

Educate Yourself and Others

People who struggle with PTSD often do so in isolation, finding it hard to reach out. In fact, they might not even realize that they are struggling with PTSD until the symptoms become nearly unbearable. In addition to educating yourself on the symptoms and treatment, it is important to seek out safe people to connect with who can support you in your recovery journey. By learning about the condition, you can have the words to more clearly explain to others what is happening for you and ask for what you need.

Find Supportive Connections

There are many resources offered in local communities and online that offer group-based support, such as support groups, classes, community meetings, and online groups. Connecting with others who are going through a similar experience can break down the walls of isolation and help you understand that you are not alone. Interacting with others who are in various stages of healthy recovery can be invaluable to you in your own healing journey. You can discover tips for coping, connect with specialized providers and learn about new and emerging treatment options.

Spend Time With People

It is common for people with PTSD to shy away from people, withdraw, and retreat. Fears, anxiety, anger, frustration, confusion, and the feeling of being overwhelmed are just some of the reasons why it might feel better to stay isolated than be around people. Spending time with supportive friends and family, however, can make a significant difference in your mood and outlook.

Keep in mind that if you are sharing space with any family or friends, it is likely they already notice you struggling. Many times people don't know how to help or are afraid to say something for fear of causing more emotional pain. It can be helpful for all parties—both you and your loved ones—to have time to spend together. Some ways to spend time with others can include things like:

  • Going for a walk
  • Have morning coffee
  • Play a card game
  • Talk on the phone
  • Share funny stories

If you don't feel ready to talk yet, you can also sit quietly in the same room to read a book or the newspaper. Simply sharing the same space quietly can feel comforting.

Emotional and Physical Coping Strategies

One of the most important ways to cope with PTSD—and many other conditions—is to take care of your mental and physical wellness. There are many strategies that can work together with your treatment to not only help you cope with PTSD, but to strengthen your mind and body in ways that can benefit you in your everyday life.

Mindfulness

Because of the levels of stress, anxiety and overwhelm that people often experience with PTSD, finding time for prayer, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques can be helpful to calm our bodies and minds. If the thought of this is uncomfortable for you, keep in mind that there is no pressure to perform.

Just beginning with one or two minutes per day of quiet mindfulness can feel like a victory. The goal of that time is to stay focused on the present without any threat of fear or judgment. Gradually add more time as you go, offering yourself moments to experience a sense of calm and learn how to balance yourself if you begin to feel overwhelmed or anxious.

Exercise

Just as it is important to learn how to calm your mind, it is also important to get your body moving. Taking time to enjoy the outdoors, get some fresh air, and move our bodies can be a helpful way to regulate mood and emotions. Research has shown that physical exercise can help our brains better cope with stress. In fact, psychologists suggest that just a 10 minute walk per day can offer benefit to our mood and help to relieve anxiety and depression. Here are some things to keep in mind as you get started:

  • Find an activity you enjoy
  • Set small goals
  • Be consistent
  • Listen to music or podcasts while you exercise
  • Ask a friend to join you
  • Be patient with yourself
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Make sure to dress for the weather

Participate in Counseling

Talking with a professional such as a counselor or therapist might feel a bit intimidating, but can be very helpful when you are struggling with PTSD. Having a trained person available to offer support and guidance in your recovery is a key element to long-term success.

Find someone you feel comfortable with, that you find trustworthy and knowledgeable, and be consistent in attending your sessions. Counseling offices can offer a safe, calm space for you to process without any fear of having to perform or be judged. Being consistent in your participation is helpful to build on your progress, continue growing, and find healing.

Keep a Journal

Some people find it relaxing to journal their thoughts and have a consistent place to go back to in order to write and process their experiences. Research has shown that people struggling with PTSD can find benefit in keeping a journal, including decreasing flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive memories, helping them slowly reconnect to people and places that they may otherwise want to avoid. Journaling can also aid in your counseling, as you can typically bring your journal to sessions as things come up that you would like to process. Talk with your therapist and see if this might be an option for you.

Work

People with PTSD miss more days at work and work less efficiently. Certain symptoms of PTSD, such as difficulty concentrating and problems sleeping, may make it hard for you to pay attention at work, stay organized, or make it to work on time.

People with PTSD have higher rates of unemployment than people without PTSD. Likewise, people with PTSD often have problems at school and are less likely to make it through high school or college.

To help navigate some of the challenges that PTSD can bring into the workplace, it can be helpful for you to talk with your employer about things that could help. Being willing to communicate is necessary for people to better understand your experience and to help you work around challenges that you are facing. Example of things to mention might include:

  • Asking for flexibility with scheduling
  • Help in minimizing distractions
  • Moments to regroup if you begin to feel overwhelmed
  • Rearranging your work space in a way that helps you feel safe
  • Talk with your HR department about possible Employee Assistance Programs

Relationships

People with PTSD are more likely to have problems in their marriages than people without PTSD. Partners of people with the condition may be faced with a number of stressors that go along with caring for and living with someone with emotional challenges like that of PTSD. The sources of stress include financial challenges, managing symptoms, dealing with crises, loss of friends, or loss of intimacy. These can have a major negative impact on a relationship.

Keep in mind that those closest to you might already recognize you are struggling and not know what to say or how to help. That doesn't mean they don't care, it simply means they don't know what to do. When we are experiencing symptoms like those of PTSD, it can feel like we are completely separated from people and going through the experience alone.

Be Honest About Your Needs

Take time to help your loved ones understand what you are experiencing and be honest about how they can help. Ask them to be patient with you and remember to be patient with yourself as well. Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries around time or personal space can be important in relationships. Learning how to trust people and asking for help can be significant obstacles, but are very important—especially with those who care for us most.

Carve Out Time

Feeling isolated in our experience is a big part of dealing with PTSD. Moving away from people, shutting down, or staying hidden from important people in our lives can lead to more emotional pain and more debilitating symptoms. Take time to spend with loved ones and practice sharing space with them, interacting, and reconnecting. Nurturing these connections by carving out time to spend together is helpful for the relationship and beneficial to your recovery and healing.

Triggers

If you are struggling with PTSD, it's possible that you can feel easily overwhelmed, fearful, and anxious. It is understandable that you would do whatever tyou can to avoid people, places, and things that could remind you of your traumatic experience. There are a couple of different types of triggers that people with PTSD can experience—internal and external.

Examples of internal triggers can include:

  • Feeling lonely
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Feeling vulnerable
  • Muscle tension
  • Memories
  • Physical pain

Examples of external triggers include:

  • News program
  • Movie or TV show
  • Smells
  • Anniversary
  • Holidays
  • Places that remind you of the event
  • Certain people

Although it is understandable to want to avoid triggers it is important to remember that, depending on the trauma we experienced, we may not be able to avoid everything that could be a trigger. Rather than working to try and avoid, it is most helpful to find healthy ways to cope with triggers so that you can fully experience life again. Participating in a recovery or treatment program can help with this, as you learn to handle and navigate challenging situations and potentially triggering experiences.

Lifestyle Risks

There are some things you can do to help yourself live the best life possible, even while you are still experiencing symptoms of PTSD. As you work in treatment with your healthcare professional, you can take certain steps to help assist your recovery and healing process. Things you may want to remember as you heal:

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Get enough sleep
  • Exercise
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet
  • Limit caffeine
  • Limit screen time
  • Don't isolate yourself

Not following some of these tips can become a risk to your well-being and your overall recovery. The symptoms you are and have been experiencing can be overwhelming and debilitating. Eliminating or minimizing risks can help you find success in treatment and offer you a chance to experience a wonderful quality of life after going through a traumatic experience.

Physical Health

In addition to mental health problems, having PTSD seems to raise the risk of physical health problems, including pain, diabetes, obesity, heart problems, respiratory problems, and sexual dysfunction.

It is not entirely clear as to why people with PTSD have more physical health problems. However, it may be due to the fact that the symptoms of PTSD result in the release of stress hormones that may contribute to inflammation and eventual damage to your body. This would increase your risk for certain physical health problems, including heart disease.

Having PTSD also appears to raise risks for unhealthy behaviors (for example, smoking, lack of exercise, and increased alcohol use) which may further increase the possibility of physical health problems.

Getting Professional Help

Learning healthy and effective coping skills can help you live a fuller life and manage some of the symptoms you are experiencing with PTSD. However, it is important to also seek help from a qualified professional who can help you move toward recovery and healing.

There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD and treating PTSD can lead to improvements in other areas of your life. For example, when people successfully treat their PTSD, they often find that other disorders go away as well (although their other conditions may require specific, targeted treatments).

Unfortunately, only slightly more than a third of people with PTSD are in some kind of treatment.

You can find a mental health provider for PTSD in several ways. Ask for recommendations from your family doctor, your health insurance provider, or those you have connected with who also have PTSD. If you are a veteran, all VA Medical Centers provide PTSD care. The military has programs for its members and their families.

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