Living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Treatment for PTSD will take a little time, but it’s important to work through treatment following the advised steps of a trained mental health professional in order to make a recovery.
A recovery is possible. Recovery won’t mean that the trauma will be erased from memory, or that physical and emotional reactions will never be experienced again when memories surface. What recovery does mean is that a person can regain a fully functioning life that is not debilitated by symptoms of PTSD, as well as find self-confidence and self-respect once more.
Treatment enables a person with PTSD to better take back control of themselves and their lives, providing positive steps and tools to improve life overall.
There is plenty a person with PTSD can do to ensure effective benefits of treatment:
- Treatment is not a ‘one size fits all’ recovery plan. It can be adapted. A person with PTSD does have options and should talk with their treating doctor at any stage about whether the chosen recovery path is working or not. A person with PTSD should also realise that treatment may take some time, and thus, symptoms may improve gradually. Recovery is possible, but in controlled steps. The intensity of trauma and associated emotions may not ‘be easily fixed’ in a handful of sessions. A person with PTSD must remain on their path to recovery and follow their treatment plan with the treating mental health professional. Working closely with the treating doctor, and maintaining open communication regarding treatment, is the best way to make a recovery.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder is a classified psychological condition, affecting many around the world. Many people who have experienced trauma exist and through diagnosis and treatment have helped to provide a wealth of information about the condition. A person with PTSD, and their loved ones, can learn much about the condition as part of the recovery process. By understanding the nature of triggers, emotions and other responses, it is easier to adopt the various coping mechanisms learned and grasp their benefits.
- A doctor is likely to encourage a person with PTSD to ‘get out a little more’ and not isolate themselves. One of the ways this can be achieved is by participating in moderate physical activity (or exercise) on a regular basis. The added benefit is that this can help to reduce stress levels too. Another way a person with PTSD can help themselves, using this advice, is to make an effort to spend time with other people. A good start is to engage with close friends and family who are aware of a person’s PTSD symptoms (and symptom triggers) and who are a willing support base in places that a person finds most comfortable (i.e. not in places or areas where potential situations may trigger distressing symptoms). Time with others can involve talking in confidence (about the traumatic experience) with trusted individuals outside of therapy. This will also help those who care to better understand the disorder and the nature of symptoms. It can also help to clarify any outbursts of anger and ensure that others are aware that they may not have provoked it, especially where children are concerned. Quality time sharing things in common (or activities) is also beneficial and can also be a critical part of healing.
- Part of positive growth in life is the setting of realistic goals for attainable achievements. Life doesn’t stop. A person with PTSD can benefit from pacing themselves by prioritising things that are beneficial to recovery, and their future, and taking things step-by-step, day-by-day. It can help to break up large goals or tasks into smaller ones, ‘step-by-step’ in order to achieve them.
- A doctor will also recommend making an effort to eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep or rest in between treatment sessions. Where necessary medications can be prescribed to aid in better quality sleep. A healthier physical body as a result of better lifestyle choices can greatly contribute to a person’s overall wellbeing. Taking the best care of oneself also involves avoiding aggravators such as the use of nicotine or caffeine, which stimulates anxiety symptoms. ‘Self-medication’ by means of substance abuse may provide temporary relief of symptoms but is not beneficial for the long run and can worsen PTSD symptoms. A doctor will advise against anything that will interfere with the effectiveness of treatment, and includes behaviours such as lashing out or becoming abusive. It is better to adopt healthier habits that break the cycle of negative reactions. Anxiety can be better relieved with a brisk walk or a hobby, such as sewing or painting that helps a person to re-focus instead of reaching for a drink. Negative emotions associated with negative memories can be channelled into an array of different activities involving creativity or even sports and meditation techniques. Selfcare is about healthier habits and cutting loose those that do not serve a healing purpose. What a person chooses is a personal one. What is helpful for one may not work for another, or even interest them.
How a loved one can help a person with PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be an emotional journey for those who are close to someone affected by the distressing condition. It can be difficult for a loved one to understand how to help a person with PTSD as well. For many, their loved one may seem like a completely different person. In some respects, loved ones may feel like they do not recognise the person they once thought they knew so well, and find it difficult to show them affection or the kind of care or patience the person may need.
As a condition, PTSD places a significant amount of emotional and mental strain on the person affected by the condition, as well as those closest to them. Loved ones can often themselves feel helpless and guilty or even fearful, finding it troubling to help the healing process along, without pushing or trying to ‘fix’ a person’s illness. As much as a person with PTSD undergoing treatment needs to understand that healing is not immediate and takes time themselves, so too must their loved ones. There is no set timeframe for effective recovery. It’s a personal journey for a person with PTSD.
Some of the best ways loved ones can help promote healing are:
- Learn about the condition from trusted medical sources – common symptoms, triggers, treatment procedures and what they involve. In learning about the condition, a loved one can better recognise behaviours such as withdrawal or avoidance as a reaction to symptoms. Loved ones can also provide needed space when it is required, while assuring a person with PTSD that they are available when a friend or relative is needed. This will provide a person with a sense of trust and security that they are not alone and serve as a reminder that ‘needing space’ (for a short period in order to re-focus and rest) is not the same as isolating themselves completely (an avoidance behaviour). In this way, loved ones can be there for a person with PTSD when they need support the most (either as company or as a confident) and not add to overwhelming stress triggers or anxiety. If a person feels it beneficial for recovery, loved ones can participate in therapy sessions.
- Respect the process – the journey to healing is likely to be along a tough road. Recovery is not going to be without challenges and many tough days. Loved ones can help alleviate worries and stress or anxiety for a person with PTSD by understanding that treatment will take time at a pace that works best for them. Healing happens on their clock, so to speak. Recovery may take months or even longer. Another part of learning about the condition and respecting the process is understanding when to encourage a person to participate in every day types of activities, celebrations and events with others (with the intent of helping to form a healthy social network), and when to back off a little and provide some necessary space or take a break following conversations about the trauma. A person with PTSD will be very sensitive to being pushed. Patience and understanding are crucial for a loved one to be very mindful of. Truly listening (and asking questions that help to better understand what happened) when a person with PTSD opens up about their experience can be far more supportive than offering advice or statements such as “I know how you feel”. Showing support in a manner that is not as understanding as a person needs will not help to maintain trust, and may result in loved ones being pushed away.
- Self-care – Loved ones should not forget to take care of themselves too, especially those who are closest to a person with PTSD (such as a spouse or parent). Maintaining overall health is just as important for a loved one as it is for someone going through a mental health disorder. A loved one must maintain healthy levels of exercise, eat a balanced diet, rest well, get plenty of sleep and make efforts to spend quality time with other friends and family. A loved one is of little supportive use to another if they themselves are not fit and healthy. It is a good idea to acknowledge that as human beings, every now and then, everyone takes a little strain and finds troublesome things or emotions a little overwhelming. When and if this happens, a person should seek support where it is needed (i.e. a support group, friends and family or even a therapist). In instances where a person with PTSD is unpredictably aggressive or even abusive, loved ones should be mindful to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them.
- Recognise critical signs – ‘Re-living’ a traumatic experience through therapy is an exceptionally emotional part of recovery, and may not happen just once. There may be days when therapy shows signs of progression in the right direction and there may be intensely overwhelming stages which leave a person with PTSD in a state of despair. If the latter happens, loved ones should be well aware of any distressing signs where they can proactively help. It can happen that a person becomes severely depressed or even suicidal. If the latter occurs, loved ones will likely be able to notice the signs and respond (with care) immediately. A person with PTSD that becomes suicidal must not be left alone, or with access to items which pose a danger to themselves or others, such as weapons or medications. A close loved one should calmly seek assistance from a trained emergency personnel immediately and advise the treating mental health professional.
How to deal with stigma
Mental illness is all too often negatively stereotyped, and a person with PTSD may be all too aware of how others may perceive their condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder may be viewed with a negative attitude (disadvantage) and if openly shared (sometimes unintentionally) may have an adverse effect on a person’s treatment progress. Almost always, stigma stems from a lack of understanding.
If it becomes obvious to a person with PTSD that others are avoiding them because they may be viewed as unstable or even dangerous, it can cause problems that do not promote recovery. Some of these may be a reluctance to bother continuing with treatment, adverse impacts on a person’s work life, social life or school environment, decline in self-confidence and all-round negative outlook of the world.
A person with PTSD can disallow stigma from affecting their recovery by:
- Maintaining treatment and using their therapy to work through any fears of being negatively labelled.
- Use counselling to dispel any self-doubt, self-judgement or any other signs of personal weakness as a result of PTSD. A person has post-traumatic stress disorder, and should never equate themselves with the illness (the person should not feel that they are defined by the disorder but rather see themselves as a person with it).
- Make an effort not to become isolated and work with the treating therapist to better handle conversations around PTSD with others in a community.
- Find beneficial support where it is needed within the community or in organised support groups (in the community or online). Wherever support is sought, a person with PTSD should ensure to advise their treating professional.
- Parents of children with PTSD should make an effort to advise relevant parties at school so that educators can better accommodate handling a child undergoing treatment, as well as be more aware of situations which may occur as a result of stigma or misunderstanding.