Living with Posttraumatic Stress (PTS) can be difficult not just for the individual but for the family and friend circle. Usually, we are forced to make adjustments in order to help with the recovery process, and it is up to loved ones and friends to work together and navigate the challenges of PTS.
If you are yourself experiencing the symptoms of PTS, you may have a difficult time communicating with your loved ones about them. There are many reasons for that, including anxiety, fear of not being understood, of being judged or blamed, of becoming too overwhelmed just talking about it.
If you are a family member, you are probably witnessing the changes in your loved one, and wondering what is going on for them on the inside, how to help them, or even what their day-to-day struggles are.
Here, we have compiled a list of the most common things that people coping with Posttraumatic Stress have shared with us that they’d like their family members to know. This is not an exhaustive list, nor will every item apply to everyone. Be mindful that the experience of trauma and its aftermath are different for everyone.
1. It is not personal
Traumatic events cause the nervous system to be constantly on overdrive. Therefore, many of our actions are motivated by feelings of anxiety (even panic), vigilance and worry. If you are upset and I can’t be there for you, it is not because I do not care. More likely, I care a lot but I already feel overwhelmed. When I seem distracted, it is possible that my thoughts and feelings are upsetting and I am just doing my best to hold it together. And sometimes I may seem upset out of nowhere, or shut down, or angry, but it is not because you have upset me.
I also do not expect you to make me feel better, and feel bad if you make it your mission to do so. Most likely, I will see that you are trying and feel even worse if it does not work, because I will feel like I am disappointing you. Perhaps just ask me if I need space or to talk. Even if I cannot tell you what I need, I know you are there.
2. We all have different triggers, please don’t dismiss mine
People, places, smells or sounds, even tactile sensations…trauma triggers can be very idiosyncratic. One person may find the view and sound of the ocean relaxing, while for another, they bring up nothing but panic and images of a near-death experience. You may love the summer, while for a Vietnam War veteran, heat and mosquito bites may bring up memories of devastation. In our day-to-day, we often say “What’s the big deal, it’s just a short drive/train ride/trip to the store….” However, for loved ones experiencing Posttraumatic Stress, a seemingly small and insignificant thing can bring up a lot of emotional turmoil. Take some time to inquire and learn what your loved one’s triggers are, and don’t dismiss them as not a big deal.
3. If I do not talk about it, it is not because I don’t care about you
Talking about trauma or about feelings may be difficult. One of the challenges of PTS is that emotions can make us feel overwhelmed very quickly, “from 0 to 100 in a second.” Even when not talking about the traumatic event per se, it is difficult to talk about internal experiences of panic, of constantly feeling hyperalert, of thoughts of self-blame, shame, self-criticism for even experiencing PTS symptoms…Often times, it is simply too overwhelming to talk about it and we worry that if we do, we will become too emotional and not be able to function. Also, there is always the fear that if you know the details of what happened, it will hurt you.
4. Isolating myself does not mean I don’t love you
Isolation is often a way of managing all the other symptoms of PTS. It often reflects how difficult getting through the day can be. So it is a means of minimizing stimuli that can upset or trigger us.
Sometimes, in order to cope with overwhelming painful emotions, we become numb. It is as if feeling becomes too much, and we need to shut them down. Problem is, emotions cannot be selectively turned off. So, in order to stop feeling the bad, the mind numbs all emotion – the good and the bad together.
Working through the impact of the trauma will help the positive emotions come back too.
5. The holidays are probably not as happy for me as they are for others
Small talk. People. People asking questions. Crowded spaces. Loud noises. Chaos and rushing. Traffic. These, among many other potential trauma reminders and triggers can be particularly distressing. If I seem distant, or want to leave early, it is not because I do not love my family or friends.
Most likely, it is just impossible for me to relax in this setting. I am constantly worried that I will become overwhelmed, or that I someone will say or ask something that will trigger me, make me angry, cause me to not feel in control of my emotions or thoughts.
In traumatic events that involve the loss of others, for example losing close friends in the military, or the traumatic loss of loved ones, the holidays can be especially difficult. No amount of cheer will make that go away, but patience and understanding can help in talking about feelings and getting through the difficult moments.