By Delia Chiaramonte, MD
Most people have heard about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but if you have a friend or loved one who is suffering with it, you might not know exactly how to help. Here are some suggestions:
1. Believe Them
PTSD is real. Flashbacks, trouble sleeping, nightmares, negative thoughts, anxiety, depression, and the myriad other symptoms of PTSD are exhausting – for everyone involved. People with PTSD may avoid talking or thinking about what happened to them and they may isolate themselves from the very people who want desperately to help them. They may be irritable, angry and even self-destructive. Fallout from PTSD can include broken relationships, addiction and even suicide. Sometimes loved ones, in an attempt to help, may inadvertently suggest that things aren’t really that bad. Statements like “its all over now, don’t worry about it” or “lots of people feel depressed sometimes” may seem supportive, yet to the person with PTSD it may feel like nobody understands, or believes, what they are going through. It is also important to realize that repeated lower level traumas can cause a syndrome similar to the PTSD that follows a difficult combat experience or a rape.
2. Help Their Nervous System Be Calm
People with PTSD often startle very easily. This shows us that their nervous system is “stuck” in high alert mode – on the lookout for imminent danger. Think how exhausting this must be! One of the goals of PTSD treatment is to retrain the nervous system to relax and feel safe. Let your loved one know when you are coming up behind them and try to give them time to adjust to transitions. Chat with them about what makes them feel safe. Use calming music, scents, touch and a gentle tone of voice. Provide regular active relaxation activities, such as massage, guided imagery and meditative movement, and definitely encourage aerobic exercise as a way to discharge anxious energy.
3. Take Care of Yourself
You know the adage about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else. It can be overwhelming to care about someone with PTSD. If you are depleted, angry, anxious or just stressed out it will not only negatively affect you, it will affect your loved one, too. So getting emotional support, committing to good sleep, moving your body as often as possible, adopting a regular gratitude ritual and adding genuine fun to your life are all important ways to support a loved one with PTSD.
4. Find Expert Help
You don’t have to do this alone. If you are concerned that your loved one has depression or a substance abuse concern, please reach out for expert help right away. Even if things aren’t all that bad, a therapist with expertise in PTSD can help manage PTSD symptoms and get life back on track faster.
5. Use An Integrative Approach
There are many approaches to PTSD treatment and it can be helpful to combine them. Medications are often used to treat depression. In addition, therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR), cognitive behavioral therapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy, positive psychology counseling, massage and acupuncture can also be beneficial. Self-care techniques such as tai chi, qigong, meditation, yoga and other relaxation techniques are important components of an integrative approach to PTSD.
6. Help Them Find Meaning in Their Experience
Research has shown that those with the most PTSD symptoms are also those who achieve the most Post Traumatic Growth. Validating your loved one’s experience and helping them find meaning in what happened to them is crucial. Perhaps they will find a strength they didn’t know they had, develop a new perspective or explore a new life path. Exploring the question “I wonder what this experience will mean for you” can be a powerful exercise that transforms suffering into healing.
About the Author: Delia Chiaramonte, MD
Dr. Delia Chiaramonte, Assistant Professor of Family & Community Medicine, Associate Director and Director of Education at the Center for Integrative Medicine, part of University of Maryland School of Medicine, is board certified in Family Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Care, and is certified by the American Board of Holistic and Integrative Medicine. Elected Phi Beta Kappa and the recipient of awards for teaching excellence, Dr. Chiaramonte has devoted her recent career to educating medical learners about integrative approaches to health and wellness. She currently serves as Chair of the Education Working Group of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine and she provides integrative medicine curricula for health professionals, students and lay audiences. Dr. Chiaramonte’s clinical experience includes inpatient and outpatient integrative family medicine, serving as a hospice team medical director and running a private patient advocacy practice. It was Dr. Chiaramonte’s experience practicing conventional medicine that spurred her interest in integrative medicine. After discovering that patients with complex concerns often responded best to an integrative approach, Dr. Chiaramonte pursued postgraduate training in mind-body techniques, Chinese herbal medicine and positive psychology. Her primary interests include integrative pain management, mind-body medicine, mood disorders, integrative wellness and the impact of stress on health.
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