“Until it happens to you, you don’t know how I feel” is a line from one of my favorite songs on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) written by the controversial pop-star Lady Gaga. It took me a while to listen to her music and be open-minded to actually enjoy it. It wasn’t until I heard this song that I felt like I could connect to anything she was talking about.
Maybe you are reading this and have no idea what PTSD is, what it’s symptoms are or how to cope with it. Maybe you are someone who knows someone who suffers from PTSD, or maybe you are a person who associates PTSD strictly with people who are coming back from war. No matter which category you fall into, PTSD looks differently from person to person, and can be developed after many perceptions of life-threatening events.
You may think that you can understand what it’s like to be through something difficult; however, PTSD is more complex than “going through something difficult”. PTSD can be developed directly after the life-threatening event and is determined on the person’s perception of what happened in the event. For example, the same event could happen to both me and you and only one of us could develop PTSD.
PTSD affects the chemicals in the brain and often times will manifest in physical symptoms like difficulty sleeping, always feeling “on edge”, becoming hypervigilant or jumpy, loss of appetite, nightmares, flashbacks, headaches or nausea. PTSD can make a person feel as if they are experiencing the traumatic event all over again simply by a small trigger, like a smell or the way someone looks at them.
Some of these symptoms can become very frustrating to the person experiencing PTSD and frustrating for the people who love this person. Do you know anyone suffering from PTSD? Are you struggling with figuring out how to be around this person or loving them? Do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re in the right place. Learning how to love someone who is in a constant state of hyperarousal or alertness can be exhausting, intimidating, and confusing. Because of these reasons, it’s best to not have to go through it alone. Here are some ways you can help your loved one.
1. Don’t assume you know what they’re going through.
Like Lady Gaga stated in her song, you really don’t know what this person is experiencing. Even if you have been through the same thing, remember that everyone perceives things differently, so your perception could elicit anger when your loved one’s perception elicited a fear-based response, which then later developed into PTSD.
If you can listen to your loved one with an open and curious mind versus an “I know what you’re going through” mindset, you will likely be providing more support, more encouragement and more understanding than if you did the latter.
2. Be patient.
Some days are hard. Some moments are even harder. Know that the person you love is trying and often times are even more frustrated with their symptoms than you are. Sometimes it becomes debilitating and the only thing they can do is take a nap or sit still for a few minutes to regain their composure. You can simply remind me them that they are safe right here in this moment and that you are there to listen if they need to talk about it.
3. Be there.
Some days are hard. Some moments are even harder. Know that the person you love is trying and often times are even more frustrated with their symptoms than you are. Sometimes it becomes debilitating and the only thing they can do is take a nap or sit still for a few minutes to regain their composure. You can simply remind them that they are safe right here in this moment and that you are there to listen if they need to talk about it.
4. Know when to seek professional help.
Whether you’re married to someone with PTSD, they are your parent or sibling, or
whether they are your friend, one of the most helpful things that you can do is to know that their recovery does not fall on your shoulders. You are there to help them, not to heal them. That is not your role. Sometimes we feel like we have to “fix” someone, or we need to love them and everything will be better. However, this doesn’t work and can leave you feeling empty, tired, and lonely.
Your loved one wants to be there for you and with you but often times does not know how when living a “normal” life seems so foreign. Encourage your loved one to seek professional support through therapy. You may even benefit from seeking therapy, coaching, or support groups for loved ones with PTSD so you know how to best help them and how you can come around others who know how you feel.
Loving someone with PTSD can be just as difficult as having PTSD in different ways. Have you ever ridden on an airplane? Do you remember what they tell you when discussing emergencies? You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help the person sitting beside you no matter what. Let me repeat this. You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help the person next to you. This is the same for any type of mental health disorder. If you are don’t have oxygen, you won’t be able to help anyone else. If you are feeling alone, empty, or frightened, you can’t help anyone because you’ll have nothing left to give.
Remember that it is ok to seek help and that this does not make you weak or incompetent or a bad supporter. This makes you human. You don’t have to go through this alone.
There will be days when you feel like giving up when you love someone who has PTSD. What you do is your choice, but know that your loved one has days where they feel like giving up too. It’s difficulty, and it’s messy, but I can honestly say that they need you now more than ever.
If you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD and are ready to seek help, please contact James at 913.735.0577 or Robin at 785.408.7529 to set up a counseling appointment. James is certified in EMDR, a specialized type of training that helps ease the symptoms and reprocess the memories of the trauma. Robin is experienced in working with preverbal trauma and PTSD and children. If you are in immediate danger, please dial *911.
For more on PTSD and mental health issues, please see Robin’s website at www.myrisestory.com. For more articles written by mental health therapists in the KC Metro, see kcresolve.com/blog.
Robin Helget, LMSW, CPT
Resolve - Counseling & Wellness
Prairie Village, KS