I think my loved one has PTSD – what can I do?
It’s estimated that 50% of people will experience a trauma at some point in their life. The defining characteristic of a traumatic event is its capacity to provoke fear, helplessness, or horror in response to the threat of injury or death and therefore can affect anyone. Examples of traumatic events include assault, road traffic incident, natural disasters, domestic and child abuse, war, acts of terrorism and traumatic childbirth. (you can read more about the causes of PTSD here)
The majority of people exposed to traumatic events experience some short-term distress, but eventually, their trauma fades to a memory – painful, but not destructive.
But longer-term, specific changes in behaviour, particularly following a trauma or multiple traumas, could be a sign that a person is developing, or has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s estimated that around 20% of people who experience a trauma go on to develop PTSD.
The symptoms of PTSD may appear over a short time, or over months, years or even decades afte the original trauma occurred.
Some of the common symptoms of PTSD are:
- Hypervigilance (On constant ‘red alert’)
- Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. Pounding heart, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
- Irrational and intense fear
- Panic attacks/anxiety/depression/mood swings
- Feeling jumpy and easily startled
- Anger or aggressive behaviour
- Loss of interest in activities and life in general
- Frequent periods of withdrawal into oneself
- Flashbacks (Acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
- Misuse of alcohol/drugs/gambling and/or food
- Over-reactions to minor situations
What can I do to help?
If you think your partner may have PTSD, it’s important to let them know you care and are there to listen when they are ready to talk. Broach the subject if you can, but without judgment. Often, those with PTSD may feel numb and distant from others. Relationship problems can develop as they are irritable, on guard, jumpy, worried, or nervous. They may also feel an increased need to protect their loved ones and so come across as tense or demanding. Try to understand how they may be feeling as much as possible.
The changes in you loved one, and the relationship you have, can understandably make you worried, and even perhaps angry, frustrated or hurt, so it’s important that you are patient with your loved one, and deal with this together – they may not have PTSD, but just need more time to process a trauma they went through. If they have PTSD, try to understand that they can’t ‘get over it’ or just ‘forget it happened’ – they are not choosing to relive the experience, or let it affect their life – they too are likely to be equally frustrated, angry, and scared.
Take any conversations at their pace, and gently encourage them to help themselves by staying active, eating well and doing things they enjoy. Gather all the information you can about PTSD, educate yourself on what the symptoms are, and if the time seems right, guide them to our website to read a little more and see if they recognise any of the symptoms in themselves (they may be feeling other symptoms you haven’t noticed).
You don’t have all the answers, and that’s ok, just make it clear that you’re there to listen if they want to talk. You can hold your partner’s hand, offer hugs, and be present. One frustrating aspect of PTSD for sufferers is that it’s very difficult to articulate, or even know what will help – so your loved one may not be able to tell you what they need, or how they’re feeling. At times, a close hug might be what will help them, but the next minute, they may need to be alone. Try to keep communicating with each other about what will help at that moment in time, and don’t make assumptions that the same thing will help in a few days time.
How can I encourage my loved one to get help?
Acknowledging that you think you may have PTSD can be hard, and any changes in your relatives’ mental health may have felt quite gradual since a trauma, and so they might have not noticed any major issues (or put ‘two and two’ together). In the situation of PTSD, they may also feel that their symptoms are simply due to ‘dealing’ with a trauma that occurred.
If they’re willing, encourage them to see their GP as soon as possible, who will, if appropriate, refer them to their local mental health team for diagnosis and to discuss treatment options.
Some community mental health teams will accept self-referrals so you may be able to go directly to them. You can check this on your local mental health trust website.
Unfortunately, the time between the GP visit, diagnosis and treatment can take some time on the NHS. Once you have a diagnosis, you may wish to consider private treatment (if this is an option for you).
Find out more about how to help support your loved one to getting treatment here.
My loved one won’t get help. What can I do?
For someone who doesn’t have PTSD, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘if I felt as bad as they do, I’d try any treatment’ or asking ‘why are they not willing to try treatment when I’m trying so hard to support them’. The fact of the matter is, treatment is scary. You’re actively asking them to talk, or think in detail about their trauma – and for many people, they’ve spent years ignoring it, or trying to forget about it. Starting treatment is a HUGE step. It’s unknown. Your loved one might not want to visit their GP. They may not think they are unwell, not realise a GP can help, or feel too embarrassed or frightened to talk to a ‘stranger’ about how they’re feeling. And for some people they’re worried that they might try treatment and it doesn’t work for them – and that might terrify them. They might feel they’re not able to be healed. And for some, the guilt, or shame they feel is just too much and they feel unworthy of recovery.
As such, pressurising, or pushing someone into treatment is very unlikely to help. Instead, you want to be encouraging, help counter any fears where you can, and do what you can to practically help them (e.g. help make appointments etc). This is where knowledge about treatments really helps – so have a read of our website, and if you can go into conversations ‘armed’ with details, examples and ideas, not only do they see you’re willing to help, but that you care enough to have spent time alone researching can be hugely comforting.
Find out more about how you can encourage someone to take that step, call their GP, or set up the first treatment appointment here.
It’s important to note that if your loved one is over the age of 18, they can’t be forced to have treatment they don’t want. They can only be forced to have treatment if they are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983.
If you need to more information about where to get treatment, what you are entitled to, or who to turn to, to make a compliant in the NHS, you can do so with the help of the Patient Advice & Support Service in Scotland, the Patient Advice & Liason Service in England, the Patient Support and Advisory Service in Wales, or the Patient and Client council in Northern Ireland.
If the person you’re worried about expresses suicidal feelings, you or they should contact a GP or NHS 111. You can also contact Samaritans on 116 123 for confidential, 24-hour support or 999 if they are in immediate danger.
Take care of yourself
During this process, it’s important to take care of yourself. When someone you care about suffers from PTSD it affects you too.
The symptoms of PTSD aren’t easy to live with, and the changes in your loved one can be downright terrifying. You worry that things won’t ever go back to the way they were before. At the same time, you may feel angry about what’s happening to your family, and hurt by your loved one’s distance and new emotions. It’s a stressful situation all around—one that can leave you feeling overwhelmed and confused.
The most important thing to know is that you aren’t helpless. Your support can make a huge difference in your partner, friend, or family member’s recovery. But as you do your best to care for someone with PTSD, you also need to take care of yourself. You can find out more about this here.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.