Top 10 ways to help someone with PTSD

The following tips were developed in collaboration with Family members. While these are suggestions that take time and patience to implement, their applicability and relevance may depend on your unique situation. What works for one person may not work for all.

Tip No. 1: Take care of yourself!

No matter how much you want to care for your family member or friend, you cannot keep giving without replenishing our own reserves. Be as kind and loving to yourself as you are to them. Take time for yourself. Have your own system of support that you can turn to. Remember that your needs are as important as anyone else’s. Some examples of self-care activities include engaging in a hobby or physical activity that you enjoy, meditating, or hanging out with people in your support system such as other friends or family members. Taking care of yourself can model wellness behaviour for your family member or friend.

Tip No. 2: Learn about PTSD

Tip No. 3: Ask “How can I support you?”

Your family member or friend may need your repeated reassurance. The experience of trauma as well as the symptoms that follow may be overwhelming, scary, isolating, and exhausting.

  • Try not to assume what your family member or friend needs. Ask “How can I support you when you are triggered?”
  • If they are receiving treatment, ask “What do you need after one of your therapy/treatment/counselling sessions?”
  • Don’t be upset if the answer is “I don’t know.” They may not have considered the question before and may need some time to think about it.
  • Recognize and talk about your family member or friend’s progress, successes and strengths – even the little ones.

Try to remember that being supportive to your family member or friend does not mean it is your job to make them better.

Tip No. 4: Try not to make assumptions

What could look to you like disinterest, anger, or apathy might actually be your family member or friend trying to get their symptoms under control, or trying to process what you just said/did.

Tip No. 5: Listen, but don’t push

As a family member or friend, you may want to understand and “fix” what is happening to your loved one. This may involve asking lots of questions. However, if your family member or friend is experiencing PTSD, they may not fully understand what is happening and so may not be able to answer your questions.

They may also choose not to share information with you about their trauma, feelings, or what happens in therapy. Although it may be difficult, try not to take this personally, and accept the information they do share with you.

It can be difficult to see your family member or friend struggling or hurting and you may want to offer advice to help, especially if you think you have been in a similar situation. Unsolicited advice can make a person feel misunderstood, criticized, or could cause resentment if the advice doesn’t work. What you can offer your family member or friend instead is your support. You can ask “Is there something I can do to help?” or “Is there something you tried that worked for you in the past?”

Tip No. 6: Learn Communication Strategies

When your family member or friend feels safe and there are few distractions, ask your them “Is this a good time to talk?” Give clear and concise messages and allow time for processing and response. Be prepared that your family member or friend may need a minute or may need to come back to you later with a response.

Talk about one major point at a time – it may be necessary to tackle one thing per conversation so that they don’t feel overwhelmed or put on the spot. Be prepared that your family member or friend may not remember what you last spoke about and may need to be gently reminded.

Tip No. 7: Try not to judge

How each person experiences any event, especially a traumatic event, is unique to that individual. How each person copes is also unique. Statements like “Can’t you just get over it?” or “You’re lucky it wasn’t worse” don’t help and can make your family member or friend feel misunderstood or guilty about their feelings. It is more helpful to validate and empathize with their perspective and experience.

Tip No. 8: Learn what the triggers are, if possible

Triggers can be anything that reminds your family member or friend of their traumatic experience. When experienced, triggers can set off, or ‘trigger’ symptoms. They can be sights, smells, sounds, tastes, or feelings that are associated with the trauma. They can be people, locations, weather, situations, or even specific dates. Triggers can also be external (books, movies, traffic, loud noises, or crowds) or internal (pain, intense emotions). Triggers are unique to each person.

If your family member or friend is able and willing to express some of their most common triggers, it may help you to support them by giving them some space and/or a little time to ground themselves.

It is probably impossible to identify all of a person’s triggers. It’s important to note it is not your job to be on the lookout for all their triggers, nor are you responsible for trying to prevent them.

Tip No. 9: Give some space / take some space

Living with the symptoms of PTSD can be overwhelming and tiring.  Your friend or family member may need some space to collect themselves, manage their emotions, think things through or de-escalate. If they indicate that they need that temporary space, even in anger, respect that request. You can continue your conversation later.

Supporting your family member or friend can also be overwhelming and tiring for you! It is okay if you need to take some time or space away for the same reasons.

Tip No. 10: Manage your expectations and get creative!

Your family member or friend may not be the same person they were before the trauma. Recovery takes time and has ups and downs. They may have days when they seem more productive, interactive, and happier.

On other days, they may not be able to manage the same activities they did before. So, some creative modifications may be in order. For example, someone who used to love watching football games at a stadium may now be triggered in crowds. Consider sitting in a less crowded area close to an exit. Alternatively, consider making a date to watch the game at home together, with your favourite snacks.