Supporting PTSD Relationships

By: Jayson Tripp, MD


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is developed when someone goes throu gh something traumatic, such as going to war or being abused. This condition can affect all aspects of life, including a person’s career and personal relationships. However, with the right support and treatment, PTSD can be managed successfully. This article will help you better understand PTSD and how to support a loved one who has been diagnosed with this condition.

Causes of PTSD

PTSD is commonly experienced after a traumatic event, such as:

  • Military combat  
  • Terrorist attack 
  • Domestic abuse 
  • Childhood abuse 
  • Emotional abuse 
  • Sexual abuse 
  • Accident (car, boating, sports, etc.) 
  • Assault or dangerous encounters 
  • A particularly difficult childbirth

These are just a few examples of traumatic events that could cause PTSD. Any event in which someone experiences trauma could trigger this condition. Also, PTSD isn’t only caused by a firsthand experience. Sometimes, a person may develop PTSD after a loved one unexpectedly dies or is severely injured.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD has a variety of symptoms, including:  

  • Intense emotions 
  • Angry outbursts/hostility 
  • Difficulty focusing 
  • Mood swings 
  • Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, numbness, or suicidal thoughts 
  • Lack of a positive outlook on life 
  • Invasive memories (flashbacks and nightmares) 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Being afraid 
  • Being on guard constantly or often 
  • Avoidance 
  • Anxiety 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Lack of trust 
  • Emotional detachment 
  • Physical reactions to reminders of trauma (nausea and pounding heart) 
  • Relationship issues 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Depression 

PTSD manifests itself differently in everyone, but these are some common symptoms to look out for. If your loved one is experiencing these symptoms, encourage them to seek professional help.

PTSD Triggers

Triggers are an aspect of PTSD that causes someone with this condition to be reminded of the traumatic event they experienced. Triggers include:

  • Related objects, people, places, sounds, tastes, or smells 
  • Experiencing the same feelings (afraid, helpless, stressed, etc.) 
  • Being touched 
  • Being in pain 
  • Loud noises 
  • Seeing similar trauma such as on TV 
  • Anniversaries of the event 
  • Certain words 

Some people with PTSD will be totally fine until they experience a trigger that brings on the symptoms mentioned above. Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them, but sometimes triggers are unavoidable. In these cases, learning coping skills can help you positively deal with the trigger.

PTSD Flashbacks

When someone is having a flashback, they are re-experiencing the trauma they have been through, which commonly leads to a panic attack. A panic attack is a short episode in which the person experiences intense fear and anxiety. When someone is having a panic attack, they typically feel a threat looming over them. In the case of PTSD, this fear is typically fear of a repeat of the trauma the person experienced. 

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Racing heart 
  • Chest pains 
  • Breathing difficulties 
  • Sweating 
  • Shaking or trembling 
  • Feeling overwhelmed 
  • Feeling a loss of control 
  • Nausea 
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy 
  • Derealization 
  • Fear of dying 
  • Feeling a loss of control 
  • Rocking back and forth 

Panic attacks often happen quickly and with little warning. But coping skills as well as medications can help someone with PTSD manage the attacks when flashbacks happen.  

Helping During a Panic Attack 

If you are in a relationship with someone with PTSD, it is vital to understand how to help your loved one through a panic attack. The following tips will help you help them through the experience:

  • Stay calm — This is a vital part of helping someone through a panic attack. If you begin to freak out, it will only create more chaos. 
  • Stay with them — Even if your loved one doesn’t want to be touched, don’t walk away, just stay with them. This shows that you care and helps them feel they are not alone, which can sometimes make them more afraid. 
  • Say calming things — Reminding the person that they will be okay and that they are safe will help them realize they are not in a dangerous situation. Reassurance is a powerful thing, even if it doesn’t seem like its helping. 
  • Encourage deep breathing — Typically when someone is having a panic attack, they will hyperventilate. Reminding your loved one to take deep breaths or do breathing exercises such as square breathing will give them something to focus on besides the triggering thoughts running through their head. 
  • Give them medication — psychiatrists often prescribe medications for panic attacks. If your loved one has a prescription, they can take it to help themselves relax. 
  • Move to a more peaceful spot — being in a crowded area may exacerbate symptoms. Try relocating to a less stimulating spot, or if you can’t leave the room, move against the wall so you’re not in the middle of a crowd.
  • Help them get moving — Light exercise can release hormones that will calm someone down and relax the body. Going for a walk somewhere peaceful is a great idea. 
  • Mindfulness — There are mindfulness exercises that can help the person come down from their panic attack. Some of these exercises include looking at 5 things, listen to 4 things, touch 3 things, identify 2 smells, and taste 1 thing. This gives the person something to focus on as well. 
  • Ask them to think of a happy memory — If they can’t think of one, bring one up for them. Happy memories such as a family vacation or any calm and happy memory can help the person focus on those feelings rather than the ones they are currently experiencing.
  • Tell others — If someone tends to have panic attacks in an environment such as at work or school, it may be helpful to let other people know so that they can also be supportive when this happens. If in public, someone may also be able to direct you to a more peaceful and less crowded spot. 

Panic attacks are a very scary thing to experience, but the support of a loved one can help tremendously, even if you don’t realize it. 

Other Ways to Support a PTSD Relationship

Aside from triggers, flashbacks, and panic attacks, the symptoms of PTSD can affect personal relationships. PTSD causes symptoms such as mood swings, angry outbursts, avoidance, and many other symptoms even when your loved one isn’t panicked. Here’s how you can help support them when PTSD is causing these symptoms.

Encourage Them to Seek Treatment

There are many treatment options for PTSD. Some options include:

  • Ketamine infusions — ketamine works quickly to reduce symptoms. Many patients notice an improvement within the first two or three infusions. Ketamine also has lasting effects with no known long-term side effects. 
  • Therapy — professional counseling paired with medical treatment is a great option for someone with PTSD. Therapists can help patients learn coping skills to help them through triggers and panic attacks. Professional counselors can also help people with PTSD in their relationships by educating loved ones and encouraging open communication between family members and loved ones. 
  • Medication — Psychiatrists often prescribe antidepressants to treat the symptoms of PTSD. They may also prescribe medication for panic attacks, like benzodiazepines, and sleep medication to help reduce nightmares and/or insomnia. 
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS therapy) — TMS treatment is approved to treat major depressive disorder (MDD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, patients with PTSD have also found success with TMS, even patients with treatment-resistant symptoms. 

The right PTSD treatment will make the condition much more manageable for you and your loved one. But sometimes it takes time to notice the effects of treatment, so remember to be patient, and don’t give up hope!

Provide Support 

As was just mentioned, PTSD treatment may not yield results right away, and dealing with the symptoms of this condition takes patients from both people in the relationship. It’s important to be supportive of the steps your loved one takes towards recovery. Also, don’t pressure them. Let them do things at their own pace.  Some other things you can do, include:

  • Help them avoid triggers — Some triggers are unavoidable as well as unexpected. Being patient with them even if they do get triggered is a big help.  
  • Know it isn’t your fault  — People who have been through trauma may develop trust issues. It is important to know that this isn’t your fault and that they are like this because they have been hurt.  
  • Educate yourself – There are a lot of things about PTSD that you won’t know or won’t understand, but doing your best to understand them and what they’re going through will help you both get through. 
  • Listen to them – Allow your loved one to tell you what they are scared of or what they are feeling. 
  • Do not invalidate them – Telling your loved one that it could be worse or that they shouldn’t feel like this will only make them feel worse. It is important to understand what they’ve been through was traumatic
  • Build trust – Letting your loved one know that you are committed to them and are here for them is an important thing to someone going through trauma. Doing things to build up trust such as keeping promises and reminding them that you care can help them feel more safe with you. 
  • Dealing with anger or outbursts – People with PTSD tend to have outbursts, especially because most have trouble sleeping. Watch for warning signs of building anger, stay calm, and understand when you need to give them space. 
  • Take care of yourself – Seeing and helping a loved one going through a hard time can be draining. You can’t help if you’re not taking care of yourself first. Try to expand the support system to not just be you, as well as making sure you have the support you need.  

PTSD is hard for those experiencing it and for those who have a loved one going through it. If you or a loved one needs help, reach out for it. Contact us at Sereni ty Mental Health Centers for treatment options. 

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*All information subject to change. Images may contain models. Individual results are not guaranteed and may vary.