Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when you develop four types of symptoms in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Broadly speaking, these symptoms are:
- Unwanted re-experiencing or reliving of a traumatic event, which may or may not be the result of exposure to specific triggers.
- A compelling urge to avoid anything that could serve as a trauma trigger
- Hypersensitivity or hyper-arousal of your nervous system caused by loss of control over your “fight-or-flight” response
- Negative changes in your everyday mood or ability to think clearly
During a time of heightened emotionality, when survivors’ traumas are triggered, they tend to react in seemingly irrational ways. Frequently, they may distance themselves from their relationships, or they may show contempt for the people in their lives, which results in distance. When hurt, sometimes people consciously or subconsciously want to injure another person so that they can understand and experience their own pain. In essence, what that really means is that they are yearning for connection and empathy. However, the actual result of their behavior is withdrawal and distance.
Once the triggering event has passed, the traumatized person re-engages with the people in their life again, sometimes expressing remorse. If we were to understand what is happening from an attachment perspective, we would consider that the traumatized person was actually feeling insecure or unsafe, but was not able to express that directly.
Below are some strategies that may be useful to consider when helping someone you love through a triggering situation. Note: These suggestions are in no way meant to be exhaustive nor are they meant to encourage a layman to provide therapy to an individual with PTSD. While these approaches are often used in therapy, if you suspect your loved one has PTSD, you should seek an evaluation from a qualified mental health professional.
- BE CURIOUS
If you value your relationship, then you may wish to commit to coming from a place of curiosity. If you want to be heard, then pay it forward and take the time to hear someone who is suffering, even if you feel frustrated and your initial thought is that they are behaving irrationally or in a hurtful manner. Once you begin to engage with curiosity, you can learn to engage in conflicts while also maintaining a positive relationship with a friend, romantic partner or family member. Learn what triggers them, what causes them pain and try to avoid causing them pain. It is important to note that being curious does not mean prying. While much of what ultimately helps trauma survivors is exposure to the feared situation or object (the extent to which one is able to tell his or her story and sit in the discomfort), you must respect an individual’s right to be silent and disclose information on his or her own time because forcing them to disclose information when they are not ready can result in re-traumatization.
- BE EMPATHIC AND LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGMENT
In order to help another person regain that sense of safety with you, you must first decide that you want to engage meaningfully with that other person. This requires empathy, being truly willing to walk around in another’s shoes. That means that you cannot take the behavior of the other person personally, nor should you make negative judgments about their thoughts, feelings and behavior. You would want to view the person’s behavior toward you as their response to their own internal struggle, which most likely is a reflection of their past. Once you are committed to being empathic and less self-focused, you are in position to modify some of your relationship behaviors.
- MAINTAIN GOOD BOUNDARIES
Setting and enforcing consistent interpersonal boundaries is one important thing to do with trauma survivors. While I said previously that it is important to be empathic, it is also important not to let them walk all over you. Boundaries actually make trauma survivors feel more secure knowing that things are predictable.
- HELP THEM TO RELAX AND COPE
We all have different ways of relaxing and taking care of ourselves. While distraction is only a good short-term strategy, it can be very effective. Alternatively, you may want to engage their senses to ground them in their present experience. That means, take them to a flower garden or in nature, draw them a bath with nice smelling bath salts, play some soothing music or eat a tasty meal. Find out how your friend, partner or family member likes to relax and help them.
- SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
Whether you are a person with PTSD or just someone who is frequently triggered by your current experiences or you are living with a person who has experienced trauma in their lives, it is often helpful to seek the support of a trusted mental health professional.
For the survivor, when you feel overwhelmed, anxious, unsafe, etc. you can help yourself by breathing in deeply, try and focus on the here and now. You can withdraw in solitude to feel safe or, reach out to supportive friends. Alone or with someone else, learn to listen to yourself with understanding and compassion and don’t be afraid to let yourself be loved. Writing down what you remember is another important way you can help yourself. There’s something about seeing it on paper or on the screen that would connect you to your feelings and you’ll be able to acknowledge them, express them and release them. Please take advantage of our trauma centred organizations directory if you need professional help.
Adapted from http://www.nashvillepsych.com/