Imagine this. You are going about your day as normal, you wake up, take a shower and get dressed for work. Brew your coffee, grab all of the papers and things you need for today’s projects. Feed the dogs, say goodbye to your family and head out the door.
And then, something traumatic happens during your day. It jars you to your core. You leave the event physically unscathed but everything you believed about the world around you has been turned on its head. You feel lucky to be alive but can’t fight the feeling of having flirted with death and the world around you no longer feels safe.
Driving home, with the realization that you will have to face your family as if everything is fine and life can move on feels like a pit of heavy rocks in your stomach.
3 days later you jolt awake at 2 am in a cold sweat. Nightmares from that day, so vivid that you can taste the air of it on your tongue, with smells reminiscent of that day burning in your nostrils. Your muscles are tense and shaky. Unable to get back to sleep that morning, you decide to go into work early. Work proves to be increasingly more difficult each day because you see, hear, and are reminded of everything that’s happened. You can’t concentrate and feel suffocated by the memories racing through your mind. You are afraid to tell the people around you that you’re just not doing well since everything happened. Unsure and afraid of possible consequences like being removed from your position or feeling forced to “go talk to someone”.
When you do finally tell someone, you notice the expression on their face drops. They quickly try to change the subject. They’re shifting in their chair as you speak and you can feel their discomfort. You see it in their eyes that not only do they not understand, but they may never treat you the same. Their sympathy feels like pity, they downplay the reality and seriousness of your experience and from here on, they begin to avoid running into you in passing.
70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives. It is important to note that Post Traumatic Stress does not always develop into PTSD. “Almost everyone who experiences a scary situation will show at least a few signs of post-traumatic stress. That’s because our brains are hard-wired to tell our bodies to tense our muscles, breathe faster, and pump more blood when we’re under intense stress”(2).
Post Traumatic Stress is often difficult for friends and loved ones to understand. Sometimes, survivors of a traumatic event may be cut off or feel shamed by people who have experienced the same event and not responded with the same intensity of symptoms. The truth is that trauma effects every person differently and a situation that minimally effects one person, may make another feel increasingly vulnerable in or mistrusting of the world around them.
Someone experiencing Post Traumatic Stress may encounter a wide range of symptoms including but not limited to: recurrent and distressing memories of the trauma event, nightmares or distressing dreams of the event, flashbacks, irritability, inability to remember details of the event, avoiding people or places associated with the event, Sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating and being easily startled.
Some of the questions I get asked most frequently by loved one’s of someone experiencing these symptoms are: “Will my partner ever be the same?”, “How can I make the environment more suitable to their needs?” and “How will treatment help?”
It is important to note with the first question that we are not looking for someone with PTS to go back to the person they were before the traumatic event. What we are really aiming to do is to help that person process and experience some resolve in their experience of the event so that they are able to continue living their life effectively; carrying out all necessary daily tasks and engaging in safe and trustworthy relationships with the people around them. We aim for them to feel supported and accepted in who they are today, having come out on the other side of trauma with resilience.
Making an environment more suitable for the needs of someone healing from trauma is a two-sided coin. Yes, you and the person can work together to minimize risk by identifying and reducing triggers – especially in the home environment. Reducing loud sounds, minimizing smells that encourage flashbacks or setting a consistent and reliable routine may help to provide some relief. There is a very honest reality though that triggers may always remain, especially when out in public or in the work place. This is where the important work of having access to supportive and informative treatment comes into play. It is here that your loved one will learn strategies for responding more effectively to their triggers through the use of grounding and calming techniques, anxiety exposure and coping skills unique to them and their situation.
It can be discouraging or overwhelming to know how to best support someone who has been healing from a traumatic event. Here are some starting points for supporting someone you love through Post Traumatic Stress.
- Remind them that you care. Reassure this person that although you may never fully understand what they have been through, you care about them and will work with them to meet their own goals and find healing from this.
- Treat them as you normally would. Often times, after someone has been effected by trauma, they feel isolated and ashamed. They feel the tension of friends and family who worry about them and also worry themselves that they will never be able to enjoy a family bar-b-que again, or laugh with their friends. It is difficult to be constantly surrounded by people who feel sorry for or treat them with pity. Work to give your loved one some sense of normalcy. Cook their favorite meal, remind them of a joke they love or engage in a hobby you both really enjoy.
- Allow them to take the reigns. Let them plan the outings. Being out in public can be unsettling and unpredictable. If they need to leave a place early, be supportive and help them get to a place that feels safe. Let them be in charge of what time they decide to go somewhere and help them plan ahead. A difficult piece of post traumatic stress is feeling like everything around you is out of your control. Anything you can do to help your loved one minimize this feeling will allow them to find at least some reprieve.
- Plug in to Community Support groups. Find out about your local resources. It can just as helpful for you to plug into a group and get some support as it can be for them. Especially in the case of Post Traumatic Stress, it is reassuring and validating to know that we are not alone in the aftermath.
- Banish the Judgment. Sometimes people who have experienced a trauma feel misunderstood and judged by the people around them. It can feel as though people are minimizing or invalidating their experience. Make sure your loved one knows that you believe them and you are hopeful for their healing and their future.
It is key that someone who is healing from Post Traumatic Stress have access to effective treatment with a provider they can trust and in an environment that feels safe and supportive. Post Traumatic Stress and PTSD are treatable with the right tools. Therapy can help someone to process and heal from their trauma memories as well as learn effective coping strategies to reduce symptoms. If you or someone you love has been experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress, please reach out today to get the treatment you need and deserve. Call me today at (805)774-1449 and I will help you to identify the tools and supports necessary to get you some relief.
To access the national crisis textline Text CONNECT to 741741. This textline can be supportive during the event of flashbacks or other experiences related to post traumatic stress. It is free, confidential and staffed 24 hours per day. Please add this number as a contact in your phone in the event you come across someone experiencing a mental health emergency or in need of additional supports and resources in their area.
- Acute Stress Disorder. (May 17, 2018). Traumadissociation.com. Retrieved May 17, 2018 from http://traumadissociation.com/acutestressdisorder.
- Bender, J. (2013, December 9). What are the differences between PTS and PTSD? Retrieved May 17, 2018, from https://www.brainline.org/article/what-are-differences-between-pts-and-ptsd
- (2013). PTSD Statistics. Retrieved May 17, 2018, from http://www.ptsdunited.org/ptsd-statistics-2/