Supporting Someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Summary A normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when someone becomes stuck:

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1 Supporting Someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) This handout defines Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), ways to cope and how to support someone with PTSD. The Skills Booklet provides additional skills that are useful in dealing with and managing symptoms. Summary: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. Most people associate PTSD with battle-scarred soldiers and military combat is the most common cause in men but any overwhelming life experience can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable. Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect those who personally experience the catastrophe, those who witness it, and those who pick up the pieces afterwards, including emergency workers and law enforcement officers. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma. PTSD develops differently from person to person. While the symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop in the hours or days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. The symptoms of PTSD aren t easy to live with for both the person suffering with it and for those around that person. Your support can make a huge difference in your partner, friend, or family member s recovery. But as you do your best to care for someone with PTSD, you also need to take care of yourself. A normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when someone becomes stuck: After a traumatic experience, the mind and the body are in shock. But as people make sense of what happened and process their emotions, they come out of it. With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),

2 however, people remain in psychological shock. Their memory of what happened and their feelings about it are disconnected. In order to move on, it s important to face and feel those memories and emotions. The difference between PTSD and a normal response to trauma: The traumatic events that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder are usually so overwhelming and frightening that they would upset anyone. Following a traumatic event, almost everyone experiences at least some of the symptoms of PTSD. When one s sense of safety and trust are shattered, it s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb. It s very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. These are normal reactions to abnormal events. For most people, however, these symptoms are short-lived. They may last for several days or even weeks, but they gradually lift. But if you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the symptoms don t decrease. You don t feel a little better each day. In fact, you may start to feel worse. Signs and symptoms of PTSD: The symptoms can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time. Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something that reminds you of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell. While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are three main types of symptoms: 1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event 2. Avoiding reminders of the trauma 3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal Symptoms of PTSD: 1. Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event 2. Re-experiencing the traumatic event 3. Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again) 4. Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)

3 5. Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma 6. Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating) 7. Avoidance and numbing 8. Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind someone of the trauma 9. Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma 10. Loss of interest in activities and life in general 11. Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb 12. Sense of a limited future (they don t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career) 13. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal 14. Difficulty falling or staying asleep 15. Irritability or outbursts of anger 16. Difficulty concentrating 17. Hyper vigilance (on constant red alert ) 18. Feeling jumpy and easily startled Types of PTSD triggers: Common external triggers Sights, sounds, smells, or touches associated with the trauma People, locations, activities, or things that remind you of the trauma Significant dates or times, such as anniversaries or a specific time of day Nature (certain types of weather, seasons, etc.) Common internal triggers Physical discomfort, such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, sickness, and sexual frustration Any bodily sensation that reminds you of the trauma, including pain, Conversations or media coverage about trauma or negative news events Situations that feel confining (stuck in traffic, at the doctor s or therapist s office, in a crowd) Relationship, family, school, work, or money pressures or arguments Funerals, hospitals, medical Strong emotions, especially feeling helpless, out of control, trapped, or unprotected Feelings toward family members, including mixed

4 Types of PTSD triggers: old wounds and scars, or a similar injury feelings of love, vulnerability, and resentment How can I help? When someone you know well, or a coworker, is anxious, or angry all the time, your relationship suffers. But it s important to remember that the person may not always have control over his or her behavior. Anger, irritability, depression, apathy, mistrust, and negativity are common PTSD symptoms that someone dealing with PTSD can t simply choose to turn off. With time and treatment, they will get better, but it s a gradual process. Tips for coping and helping someone with PTSD Be patient. Getting better takes time, even when a person is committed to treatment for PTSD. Be patient with the pace of recovery. It s a process that takes time and often involves setbacks. It s common for people with PTSD to withdraw from other people. While it s important to respect your their boundaries, too much isolation is unhealthy. Your comfort and support can help a person with PTSD overcome feelings of helplessness, grief, and despair. In fact, trauma experts claim that receiving support from others is the most important factor in PTSD recovery. Knowing how to best demonstrate your love and support, however, isn t always easy. You are not a licensed therapist and should not expect yourself to be one, further you can t force someone to get better. But you can play a major role in the healing process by spending time together and listening carefully. Educate yourself about PTSD. The more you know about the symptoms, effects, and treatment options, the better equipped you'll be to help your loved one, understand what he or she is going through, and keep things in perspective. Don t pressure the person

5 into talking. It can be very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Instead of trying to force it, just let them know you re willing to listen when they re ready. Take care of your own emotional and physical health. As the saying goes, put on your own oxygen mask first. You won t be able to help if you are burned out, sick, or exhausted.

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