How to Help Someone With PTSD

Women hugging in support at support group in community center
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Knowing how to help someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be challenging. The symptoms of PTSD can present difficulties for friends and family members who want to support a loved one living with PTSD. If you know someone with PTSD, there are ways you can help. In fact, you can be very beneficial to their recovery, but only if you also care for yourself, too.

How to Help

Educating yourself as much as you can about what PTSD is and what your loved one is going through, including the symptoms they could experience, is often a good place to start. Keep in mind, however, that a symptom of PTSD can include feeling detached from loved ones, which can make supporting someone with PTSD more challenging.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), some other symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Having upsetting memories, dreams, or flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Being distressed by external or internal cues that remind them of the event
  • Avoiding anything that reminds them or resembles the traumatic event
  • Difficulty sleeping, concentrating
  • Being irritable, hypervigilant, or self-destructive

People with PTSD also experience negative thoughts and moods, which can cause them to think negatively about themselves, others, or the world in general. They can also feel intense self-blame and guilt. However, a 2015 study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that support from friends and family was negatively correlated with these types of negative thoughts post-trauma. In other words, when people who experienced a traumatic event received more support from loved ones, they experienced fewer negative thoughts.

If they need your support getting professional help to treat their PTSD, you can connect them to a provider. You can also encourage them to lean on their wider support network.

The impact of PTSD can reach far beyond the person with the condition, affecting the lives of their friends and family as well. It's important to also take care of yourself as a support person or caregiver.

Stress Associated With Support

Receiving support from others is a healthy and effective way of dealing with a stressful event. It's no wonder that during times of stress, people often turn to their loved ones first.

It is important to realize, however, that providing support requires energy and can also be stressful in and of itself.

Watching a loved one struggle with a problem can be upsetting and stressful. It is possible to support your loved one without getting overwhelmed and sacrificing your well-being. But when the stress from being another person's support system is constant and draining, you can experience what is known as caregiver burnout.

Caregiver Burden and Burnout

PTSD is a chronic illness, and a person with PTSD may require constant care from a loved one, such as a partner, parent, or another family member. Partners of people with PTSD may be faced with a number of stressors that go along with caring for and living with someone with a chronic disease.

These stressors include financial strain, managing the person's symptoms, dealing with crises, the loss of friends, or the loss of intimacy.

Due to their loved one's illness, partners and caregivers often take on a disproportionate amount of responsibility for these stressors, which places a large burden on them and can ultimately lead to burnout.

Research on Caregiver Burden

A few studies have looked at caregiver burden among partners caring for loved ones with PTSD. In one study, researchers looked at 154 spouses of veterans with PTSD. They found that the severity of the veterans' PTSD symptoms was connected to the amount of caregiver burden and distress experienced by the spouse.

As the veterans' PTSD symptoms got worse, their spouses' caregiver burden and distress increased.

Researchers have also looked at how PTSD symptoms such as depression, anger, and violence play out in relationships between people with PTSD and their caregivers. There may be a connection between how much detail about the trauma is shared with a partner and mental distress in the relationship, but more research is needed to better understand the issues.

Studies looking at the wives of combat veterans have found that the stress associated with caregiving can have damaging psychological consequences. Among wives of combat veterans with PTSD, there was an increased risk not only of PTSD, but somatic disease, clinical depression, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and an increased level of suicidality.

Living With Someone With PTSD

Living with someone who has PTSD can present its own set of difficulties. A 2016 study in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship interviewed spouses of veterans with PTSD and revealed issues that arose, including:

  • The unpredictability that comes with the disorder and not knowing what could trigger the spouse with PTSD
  • Dealing with emotions or other mental health issues that could arise, such as suicidality
  • Being concerned for their safety or the safety of children in the house
  • Picking up extra work around the house in the case the spouse couldn't fulfill these normal responsibilities

PTSD often presents with other mental health issues as well, which can be challenging for a caregiver—particularly one who lives with someone with PTSD.

Coping

There are a few ways you can work to prevent and cope with the stress associated with being a caregiver for someone with PTSD:

  • Educate yourself about PTSD: Not only can learning about PTSD help you care for your loved one, but it can also help you. Simply knowing the symptoms of PTSD and where they come from can help you gain a better understanding of your loved one's diagnosis and behavior.
  • Take care of your physical health: The National Alliance on Mental Health provides general guidance on how to take care of yourself as a caregiver, which includes staying active, eating well, getting enough sleep, and skipping alcohol and drugs.
  • Seek out support groups: Online support groups give caregivers the opportunity to talk with other caregivers who understand their experience. As with any support group, it's important to know that while many provide excellent support, some groups can actually make you feel more depressed. If you choose to go online, make sure to connect with people who share your challenges but support you in coping.

Mental health professionals recognize the stress that comes with caring for a loved one with PTSD. Caregivers may also benefit from attending individual therapy to get support for themselves and learn how to cope with their loved one's PTSD. Couples counseling may also be useful for some partnerships.

It's important to care for yourself and ensure you're taking some time to tend to your own needs, without which you won't be able to fully care for your loved one with PTSD. If you're already experiencing any symptoms of depression or stress and you're concerned you have caregiver burnout, you should speak to a healthcare provider.

Unfortunately, despite the significant impact of PTSD on family and friends, remarkably little research has looked at methods of helping caregivers cope with this stress. In addition, most of the research is dated and focuses on the incidence of caregiver burden rather than any effort to look at ways of reducing it.

A Word From Verywell

Caregivers may feel guilty when they take time for themselves, but it's just as important for them "recharge their batteries" as it is to provide care for others. Living with and caring for someone with PTSD is stressful. Unlike conditions that are short-term, PTSD is a chronic condition that can feel neverending. The more caregivers can learn how to care for themselves, the better they will be able to care for others.

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13 Sources
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