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Five Things to Work on if you Love Someone With PTSD

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

"Family members can ‘make crazy’ behaviour that is non-sensical to them but is performing an important function for the affected person, holding them together or even keeping them alive until a more ideal coping strategy or healing environment can be found. "

Following on from my recent article on Veterans and First Responders with PTSD, below are 5 things that can be helpful to work on if you love one of the brave souls trying to find their way through this difficult condition. Recovery is possible and people do get well and go on to live meaningful and purposeful lives. Learning how to support someone with PTSD is a journey of its own that can involve a steep learning curve and some personal growth. One mother told me of her journey supporting her veteran son, “I never knew my heart could grow so wide and my love so deep. I believe that his PTSD invited me into my own healing and taught me how to love in an entirely different way.”

1) Refrain from ever saying “That’s in the past” or “You Just Need to Move on”

Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but I hear these things said quite often. Well-meaning family say things that border on insanity in their desperation to help their loved one, and inadvertently dismiss how desperately the person is usually trying to move on and how impossible the task of doing so often feels for them. Imagine trying to move on from events in the past, whilst constantly, violently and against your will being thrown back in time to those exact events, the memory so powerful that while it’s happening you struggle to know whether you are here now or there then. In PTSD, the line between past and present, then and now, becomes extremely blurred and the person has little to no control until traumatic memories are properly integrated. A threatening past is viscerally alive in the body and mind of PTSD sufferers in the present in ways that people can scarcely imagine, let alone deeply appreciate and understand. At the very least, this deserves respect.

2) Accept that the person will never be “like they used to be”

One of the things I hear most often from anguished mothers/fathers/spouses is “I just want the old (name) back”, but as a client said to me recently, “We are never the same as we once were,” and the pressure from loved ones to somehow return to a former state of being, despite having endured shattering and life-altering experiences since then, is often just too much to bear. The life that pre-dated the PTSD is gone and the person that predated it is inexplicably altered. Both are prone to being romanticised, longed for and held up as the gold standard of what recovery would look like, but people buckle under pressure to return to a state of being that has already been lost. Hope lies in accepting that recovery doesn’t look like what went before and recovery involves both the affected person and those that love them grieving the loss of what was and accepting what is. In that grief, the fertility required for new life to spring forth is created.

3) Look past the ‘crazy’ and see the wisdom in the person’s behaviour

Many behaviours that trauma survivors engage in can look ‘crazy’ to those around them, but recovery rests in being able to see the wisdom in them. Family members can ‘make crazy’ behaviour that is non-sensical to them but is performing an important function for the affected person, holding them together or even keeping them alive until a more ideal coping strategy or healing environment can be found. From those who cut themselves just to feel something in an endless numbness, to those who push everyone close to them away because they are desperately trying to conserve enough energy so they can just keep going, I have yet to meet someone with PTSD whose survival strategies did not have an incredible wisdom to them. PTSD itself seems to have an artful way of repeatedly calling its host’s attention back to the exact places within them that require healing. Families can be helpful when they refrain from dismissing the person’s survival-oriented behaviour as crazy.

4) Look at the way living in Fight/Flight/Freeze was a pre-existing issue in the family

When adult children enter the military or emergency services, and leave with PTSD, the service they served with can seem the obvious place to lay blame, but whilst both the military and emergency services are culpable, it is also true that people have pre-existing vulnerabilities that make them more susceptible to ending up with PTSD. When people come to their service from families where the amount of stress faced over the generations exceeded the family’s coping resources, family life is impacted and somewhat regulated by the stress response. When states of fight/flight/freeze govern family life, functioning is prone to becoming more rigid and less flexible, less responsive and more reactive. There is a heightened sensitivity to threat, with less resources and flexibility to deal with it. When family members can see the ways that they themselves might habitually be frozen/numb or in elevated fight/flight responses, it can speak very powerfully the message ‘This problem didn’t start with you,’ and if somebody close to the affected person works on settling their fight/flight/freeze responses, it can be hugely stabilising and grounding for all.

5) Ditch the advice and approach with humility, curiosity and an open mind

All too often family and friends approach PTSD sufferers with unsolicited and ill-placed advice. Giving advice is how many of us seek to care for another, but mostly advice-giving is anxiety-driven and relieves the anxiety of the advice-giver, whilst shifting anxiety in the direction of the person receiving it. Especially in the case of veterans and first responders, assume that there is no way you can possibly get what they are going through and work at having the humility to assume that you don’t have the answers for their life and struggle. For most, this really is a workout because there is significant tension in resisting the urge to give advice and have the answers, but it is in precisely that place of willingness to sit in our own humility, curiosity and openness, present to and engaged with the person’s struggle, that we become truly helpful.

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