Loving relationships can provide a powerful opportunity to support someone coping with PTSD. Here are some ways you can support your loved one.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) presents numerous challenges that are unique to each person living with it. At times, its symptoms may be taxing for you and your loved one to navigate, but social support can be a valuable resource for managing PTSD.
Reading up on ways to support a loved one with PTSD shows you are committed and willing to lend a hand, even amid potential discomfort and confusion.
Research suggests that healthy, positive relationships can help lay a foundation for healing. A
When it comes to supporting someone with PTSD and strengthening your bond, there are several helpful things you can do and say — as well as things to avoid.
Fear is a primary symptom of PTSD, according to
“One of the things that partners can really do to support their loved ones with complex PTSD is just to learn what can make them feel safe,” said Stephanie Foo, author of “What My Bones Know” — a memoir about her journey with complex PTSD — in an interview with Psych Central.
When your partner or friend is feeling unsafe, you might consider doing what will help them experience a sense of security or comfort based on how they feel most loved and safe, such as:
- offering a hug
- providing verbal affirmations, like “it’s going to be OK”
- cooking for them or giving them a small gift
- spending extra quality time together
There’s one caveat, though: When providing this safety, make sure you aren’t explicitly helping your loved one avoid what they fear. One example of this would be always driving an out-of-the-way route to avoid the scene of a car accident to make your partner feel safe.
The best thing you can do for your loved one is let them decide when they’re ready to engage with something and support them in their decision-making.
Looking for more ways to strengthen your bond? Here’s how to create emotional safety in your relationship.
Reassuring your loved one of their worth and lovability is one simple but powerful way to support someone facing PTSD.
When Foo was in the throes of complex PTSD, her friend said five words she’ll never forget: “You are easy to love.” She told Psych Central she found solace in both the content of her friend’s words and their repetition over time. You are easy to love.
These were comforting words for Foo. What words of affirmation do your partner or friend find comforting?
Some examples might include tailored variations of the following:
- “I am not going anywhere.”
- “You will get through this.”
- “I love you.”
- “We’re in this together. I’m on your side no matter what.”
- “Please know I’m here for you.”
Someone living with PTSD may experience triggers of past trauma even if there’s nothing external that overtly warrants a sense of danger. During these moments, specific verbal reassurance from a loved one may help offset fear and usher in a sense of calm.
Each person will have different symptoms and triggers. Clear communication can help you plan the most supportive ways to respond when they arise. Communicating about symptoms and triggers can help you to create an intentional, supportive response.
For example, one common symptom of PTSD and complex PTSD is dissociation. If your partner or friend experiences dissociation, they may display a sense of numbness or detachment.
Foo told Psych Central that when her dissociation is at work, her voice can become flat.
If your loved one starts interacting with you with a flat voice, or flat affect, it may be initially hard to interpret. It’s helpful to ask questions about what their expression or tone may or may not indicate.
One way you can support your partner is by asking them, “Hey, you sound kind of irritated. What are you experiencing right now? Is there anything I can do?”
If you and your loved one have developed a rapport around symptoms, you may feel comfortable asking them directly about what a blank expression may mean. If you’re still learning about how PTSD manifests for your loved one, it may take time to figure out what your communication style will be.
In any case, it helps to stay in close contact about both parties’ needs and expectations to show love and avoid miscommunication.
When triggers arise, there are a few evidence-based methods that people with PTSD can use to regulate their nervous system and feel more grounded or present. You might offer to sit with your loved one and do some of these practices together. In doing so, you may find yourself feeling more calm and present, too.
Over time, practicing regulating exercises with a loved one — known as co-regulation — can help your loved one regulate their nervous system. It can also help you and your partner feel more at ease and connected.
Practices that anyone can use to regulate their nervous system include:
While it’s important not to glorify the strengths one builds out of trauma, it can be helpful to identify, affirm, and appreciate the ways someone with PTSD has grown through their healing journey.
Identifying and affirming strengths may sound like the following:
- “I admire your bravery.”
- “I appreciate your ability to cope.”
- “I’ve noticed how strong you are. Do you (or can you) notice your own strength?”
Foo says that her own healing journey with complex PTSD has “allowed me to feel less like, ‘I’m a nightmare person who can’t do anything right’ and more like, ‘You know, I have a condition that sometimes requires a little extra help, but it doesn’t make me a bad person.’”
Loving someone with PTSD may require additional reading and self-study to examine personal triggers and biases. Here are some articles that may help:
Making statements that minimize a person’s feelings, cause shame, or create unfair comparisons is likely to aggravate their PTSD symptoms. Such statements include:
- “What’s wrong with you?”
- “You’re acting crazy.”
- “You’re overreacting.”
- “What happened to you isn’t that bad.”
- “Other people have it worse.”
Try to consider that your loved one’s actions may be trauma responses. A trauma response can be the body’s way of
Caring for a friend or partner with PTSD can be intense at times. Take care of your own mental health by:
Supporting the people we love can be some of the most important and meaningful work we do.
People with PTSD may rely on loved ones for support. Your actions — from listening to your loved one to telling them you love them — have the potential to be incredibly valuable to your loved one along their journey.