How to Support a Friend or Loved one Battling PTSD
If you are a person who is supporting a friend or loved one who has PTSD, here are 10 tips to help them through this challenge.
- Have patience
Coping with and healing after trauma takes time, even when the individual is working hard and everything is going well. Setbacks are inevitable. As such, it is important to stay positive and understanding. And most importantly, it is crucial for you to continue to be there for them despite his or her setbacks.
- Don’t expect much in return.
You may feel like you spend a lot of time reaching out and trying to be there for them, but they rarely take you up on your offer or reciprocate by being there for you. Withdrawing from friends is a hallmark symptom of PTSD. It is not personal or reflective of how much they value you or your efforts. A person with PTSD may have incredible difficulty reaching out to you, or even taking you up on your offers. It may be helpful to revert back to tip #1: “Be patient.” The healing journey looks different for everyone. It is hard to know what someone will need, but be sure they know you are a safe person to approach. Be steadfast in your support.
- Don’t judge.
Sometimes you may find yourself becoming frustrated and thinking something along the lines of “I, or someone I know, went through something similar, and didn’t develop PTSD. I don’t know what your problem is”, please remember that everyone is different, and as such, everyone’s response to trauma is different. PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
Try to be open to the idea that everyone has their own journey to make, and it may not be your way.
- Don’t pressure a loved one or friend to talk about their trauma.
Trauma is, obviously, a sensitive topic. While talking about trauma can be therapeutic, in the wrong context, it can actually make coping more difficult. It is best to make it known to your friend that you are there for him or her if they need it, but do not force it.
- Reach out.
Individuals with PTSD frequently withdraw from their social support system. However, social support is an enormous protective factor against PTSD at the same time. Your friend needs you, even if they’re not reaching out to you. Try to remember that it is important for you to reach out to them. However, it is also important to respect their boundaries. Demonstrate that you are available, make it as easy as possible for them to reach out to you, and demonstrate you are a safe person to approach if he or she needs you. Importantly, being perceived as safe may mean not “pushing” them too far. Your support can counteract some very real symptoms of PTSD including helplessness, grief, and rumination. Even if you are not talking about the trauma or any of his or her difficulties, spending quality time together is invaluable. In contrast, if you push too hard, you may find they feels overwhelmed and retreats further away from you to feel safe.
If your friend chooses to talk and share with you, the best thing you can do is listen. Try to listen without expectations or judgments. Don’t worry about giving advice or imparting wisdom, just listen. Validate them, be empathic, and listen. Even if he or she needs to talk about the same thing over and over again, try to be patient and listen. You may be tempted to urge them to stop talking about the same thing over and over again and “get over it” or “move on,” but this is all part of the process. Instead of trying to guide them in their journey, just show that you will walk alongside them. You may not like what you hear, but try to be understanding of their experiences and reactions so they feels safe coming to you again if need be.
- Make your loved one or friend feel secure.
Be a trustworthy and reliable friend by being dependable, reassuring, and follow through on the promises you make. Be there for your friend when they need you. Be supportive by making it clear you know he or she is capable of recovery. Do not try to take control over their life and make decisions for them; rather, empower, encourage, and support them. Make plans with them. And do not gossip or talk behind his or her back or subtly cut him or her out of your future.
- Encourage your loved one or friend to seek treatment.
But be sure to do so in a non-shaming, non-patronizing way. Wait for an appropriate moment (e.g., not when either of you are angry or they are triggered), and be sure to approach the topic in a sensitive manner in a safe environment. Acknowledge the many reasons why a person would be reluctant to seek treatment, but emphasize all the possible benefits. Therapy will lead to recovery, healing and build new coping and communication skills. If they are currently in therapy please remember therapy is not a one size fits all deal. There are many types of therapy and therapists out there as there are many different forms of PTSD and trauma. Empathize they are deserving of the best treatment for their PTSD as a person with heart problems is deserving of the best treatment for their condition.
- Be prepared for some confusing emotions and be kind to yourself.
You will probably get very frustrated with your friend at times. Be prepared for these mixed feelings, and do not beat yourself up for them. Becoming worn out or frustrated does not mean you care any less about your friend.
- Take care of yourself and set boundaries.
Be realistic about what you are able to give your loved one or friend. Take care of your own physical and mental health first. You cannot be of any help to your friend if you are exhausted, burned out, and have nothing left to give. Make sure you have your own social support system and that you are taking time for yourself. Be sure to reach out for help if you need it. You do not need to be alone in caring for your friend, or in caring for yourself.
As part of a first responder family, it is important to do all we can to be supportive of one another. Luckily, social support is one of the absolute best ways to heal from PTSD. But despite how important it is, giving social support to those with PTSD is often difficult because of the tendency to withdraw socially. It is a bit of a catch-22, but there is hope. Bottom line: Be the support your loved one or friend needs you to be.
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Families of the RCMP for PTSD Awareness