Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a diagnostic label given to those who have been through a traumatic event(s) and have residual emotional distress and anxiety directly related to such event(s). It’s a widespread “disorder” that can create depression, problems in interpersonal relationships, health issues, and overall difficulty in personal functioning. Trauma survivors also experience nightmares of the event(s), flashbacks, and other ways of psychologically reliving the experience. As such, they might be on high alert a lot of the time. It’s all too common for someone who has PTSD to feel anger, sadness, grief, guilt, shame, loss of control and fear. This is a normal reaction to a trauma. Due to these emotions, one might try to hide their struggles, so when they do open up about their experiences it’s imperative to provide a supportive response. When another person validates our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, it provides a powerful positive shift on the psychological level. How we respond to someone who opens up about their experience can either create space for healing, or it can do more damage. Based on my experience with clients, I’m suggesting a few things here not to say to someone living with PTSD.
1. I thought PTSD only happened to war veterans.
Many believe PTSD can only affect those who have been in a war, and some believe it only happens to war veterans who are in direct combat. This is a common misconception and there are many more instances where a person can experience a traumatic event and develop PTSD. Some examples are, but not limited to: a physical illness, witnessing or experiencing violence (emotional and/or physical), sexual assault, a car accident, being held captive, or being forced to do something against one’s will. Childhood abuse (in any form) is a major contributing factor for developing PTSD but this is not widespread knowledge. If someone comes out and reveals that they experience PTSD symptoms chances are they are telling the truth. They know their experiences and their pain and it’s not up to us to decide whether or not they are suffering or if their experience was traumatic.
2. It’s time to move forward with your life and let go of the past
This statement can be received as “blaming the victim” as it implies that the PTSD sufferer wishes to remain stuck and in emotional turmoil. We must remember that there is no time limit to healing. The effects of PTSD are multilayered. One might find they need to remain in denial for longer than others. Another might be pushing too hard to “get over it” therefore suppressing certain feelings. Some might turn to addictions until they realize that they need help in moving forward. Respect others’ pace and process. Implying that they should be fine with everything invalidates their experiences and can create more guilt and shame, which is counterproductive and puts pressure on the person to “feel better now,” which is unreasonable to for us to ask.
3. Can’t you talk to someone about that?
Well, yes. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has access to a mental health professional or adequate PTSD support or even online PTSD forums. And even if someone has a good therapist, for example, or social support, it does not automatically mean that the issues and symptoms just disappear. Those willing and able to face their traumas head-on are brave souls who are trying to work through severe emotional pain that we cannot see, and like any other struggle, healing is a process. It takes time and it takes energy and as mentioned previously, those suffering from PTSD need to go at their own pace.
4. Well, it can only get better from now on.
Actually, that’s not true. While this might seem like an encouraging statement, it isn’t always the truth. Working through PTSD can take years. There are so many psychological, emotional, behavioral, and physical effects that manifest from the trauma that all need to be addressed and worked through and healed. It might actually feel worse for the person struggling because they are going into deep issues to heal some very heavy stuff. The important thing to remember is that there will be ups and downs and the healing process is never linear, but just because one feels worse one day or better the next, then worse the next does not mean they will never get to a good place emotionally.
How we react or respond to someone who is struggling with PTSD can really make a difference to that person’s recovery. While we might be well intentioned with what we say, it’s not always helpful. In addition, if we have not experienced such trauma in our lives, we really do not know all of the nuances that manifest from these experiences. Being supportive includes validating one’s experiences, normalizing their feelings, giving time and space to heal, and good communication. For instance, we can ask what it is they find supportive, and if they do not know we can help them find out. We can listen without judgment, and we can respect where they are in their healing process. We can offer patience and understanding through non-blaming statements. And most of all, we can accept a person as they are and where they are at in their recovery process, free from our own expectations and biases.