What is PTSD?
In any dangerous situation, it is natural to feel afraid. Humans, when faced with a precarious situation, go into “fight or flight” mode and usually when the danger has passed, that fear subsides until they are confronted with another threatening situation. However, for certain survivors of traumatic events, such as a car accident or a dog bite, the trauma can offset the balance of their “fight or flight” mode. Instead of only going into “fight or flight” mode solely during the traumatic event, they will feel fear even when they are no longer in danger. This is what is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Any person at any age could get PTSD. Currently in the United States, PTSD affects 7.7 million people. You are not alone.
It is important to note that it is perfectly healthy to feel fear after a traumatic event and fear does not necessarily constitute that someone will have PTSD, since only some people will develop it over time. While it is still not clear why every person who undergoes trauma does not develop PTSD, there are certain factors that put people at risk. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, certain factors put people at a greater risk for developing PTSD after a traumatic incident such as:
- Living through traumas
- An existing mental illness
- A lack of a support system
- Dealing with extra stress can put people at a greater risk for developing PTSD after a traumatic incident
How do I know if my loved one has PTSD?
The National Institute for Mental Health groups the symptoms of PTSD into three categories: re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal.
- Reliving the trauma
- Bad dreams
- Any words, objects, sounds and/or situations that remind them of the incident can serve as a “trigger”
- Feeling depression
- Lost interest in previously loved activities
- Avoiding anything that reminds them of the trauma, for example, if they were in a car accident, they might avoid driving or riding in cars
- Inability to fall and stay asleep
- Tendency to be easily startled
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, the survivor needs to demonstrate several symptoms in each of these three categories.
How can I help my loved one who has PTSD?
Once you know that your loved one has PTSD, it can be incredibly difficult to know what to do next. While you may not personally be suffering from this disorder, it still affects you. One of the hardest challenges in supporting someone you love who has PTSD is that they often become a fundamentally different person. This can be frustrating and scary, but it is important to be patient and loving because generally they are just as scared as you. Your support truly does make a difference. People who are diagnosed with PTSD are at a greater risk of committing suicide, says about PTSD. This is not meant to scare you, rather, it is meant to inform. This disorder is a very serious diagnosis—your loved one needs you more than ever.
- Listen This seems obvious, but PTSD survivors need to be heard. For many survivors, re-telling their stories is important in order for them to move forward. Listen and do not judge. You do not need to be their therapist—they should already being seeing a licensed therapist. Let them know you are there for them and you are able to talk about whatever they are going through. They may not want to talk right away. They need to decide to talk on their own terms and at their own pace, and when they are ready, they will know you are there for them.
- Be there for them and be supportive Often car accident survivors will feel very alone. Continually remind them that you are there to help them when they need something. Support them. If they are going to counseling, support their decision to go. If you see that they are having a hard time attending their therapy sessions, kindly help push them to go. That may include driving them to appointments, making appointments, or even finding them a therapist to begin with. Being there doesn’t mean you need to be with them every waking hour, but it does mean that you make sure they are able to feel safe. They will want their space, but remember that pushing people away and distancing oneself is often a symptom of PTSD. Give them space, but also make sure that they spend adequate time with other people that they feel safe with and that they care about. This is crucial to the recovery process. It’s easier for those who have PTSD to be able to cope and heal if they have a good support system.
- Educate yourself If you understand PTSD at least on a basic level—what it is, why it happens, to whom it happens—it is way easier to help someone out who is struggling with it. (If you’re reading this article, you are already off to a great start!) While you cannot undo what happened to your loved one, you can help them take on their future. You will never fully understand the disorder if you do not have it, but education will give you a way to find resources, ideas, and support for your loved one as well as yourself. Further than that, it gives you a chance to connect.
- Be aware and understanding “Triggers” are situations, objects, sounds and words that trigger the individual’s memory and reminds them of their traumatic incident. Every trigger is specific to every person. Car accident survivors with PTSD could be triggered by anything from driving in a car and/or even just the car they are in making a sudden stop. An important thing to understand about being triggered is that someone with PTSD cannot control that feeling. After therapy and even medication, they can learn to cope with triggers and maybe even resolve them, but not everyone will be able to do that right away—or ever. Start to learn and know what triggers your loved one. This can be done solely by observation and then you can sit down and have a conversation them. Express your support and ask what things you can do to make it easier for them.
- Take time for yourself This is so important and often undervalued when it comes to helping a loved one with PTSD. In order to help others, you have to be in a position to help yourself. If you can’t help yourself, it makes it almost impossible to be able to help others. No one plans for a tragic accident, so understand that you cannot know everything and that is okay. Take it one day at a time. Self-care is crucial. Make sure you have a support system and that you take time for yourself. Do things you love to do. Repetitively hearing about a traumatic situation can be painful as well as incredibly traumatic for the person listening. It is important to take a step back and let yourself take a well-needed break and if needed, heal, before trying to continue help your loved one.
You cannot do everything, and that is okay. If you are in a place where you should not be helping another person and you continue trying, that will be more detrimental than good. Take time for yourself. It is better for you and your loved one. There are so many resources for you to be able to be take care of yourself as well as take care of your loved one.
Will my loved one ever get better?
The National Center for PTSD explains, “’Getting better’ means different things for different people, and not everyone who gets treatment will be ‘cured.’” Essentially, there is no exact timeline—everything depends on the circumstance and the person. There is not a way to erase those memories completely, but antidepressants and therapy can be extremely beneficial and can help your loved one get better. A vehicle/bicycle accident or a dog bite can result in many other disorders and emotional trauma. While this post discusses just PTSD, you can read about emotional and psychological trauma more generally here.
Post-traumatic stress disorder does not only affect the people who actually have the disorder—it also impacts those around them. As you help your loved one navigate their life with PTSD, make sure to take care of yourself. Maybe they won’t ever completely be cured, but there is hope for a better life for them and you.