HOW TO HELP SOMEONE COPE WITH PTSD

I know that the day your spouse or partner went through a traumatic event, their life changed and so did yours. Therefore, whether or not your spouse has been given the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, I totally understand you’re on a search for how to help your spouse with PTSD.

That trauma is likely to occupy them every single day in small and large ways no matter how much they’re trying to avoid being confronted with it. Naturally, it also affects you in various ways.

(I’m focussing here on severe psychological trauma suffered as an adult. If your spouse has suffered childhood trauma on account of mental, physical and sexual abuse, you may find some of the information helpful.)

What do I know?

I have worked as a work-place counsellor – specialising in trauma – for a large Police force. Many of my clients presented with anything from subclinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress to full-blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Often they suffered from police-related incidents but many who had joined the police force came with symptoms dating back from their time in the military.

Based on that experience, I hope to be able to help you help your spouse or partner with PTSD or any post-traumatic stress symptoms.

First of all, though, I’d like you to start by reading my article on PTSD symptoms to discover what it’s like to have PTSD. This will give you some idea of what your spouse might be going through, particularly when they’re unable or unwilling (because they avoid anything to do with that trauma) to tell you.

And, just in case your partner or spouse has suffered a head injury, also read the following two articles (you may want to suggest your spouse read them too):

What causes PTSD?

It’s perhaps easy to understand that first-responders and military personnel are most at risk of getting post-traumatic stress symptoms. However, ‘normal’ every-day life can take a sudden dramatic turn.

So, to help someone with PTSD-like symptoms, it’s useful to understand what causes PTSD. Or, more correctly, what type of events potentially increase the risk of anyone developing long-term mental health problems and what the symptoms are.

Why is it important that you’re conversant with PTSD?

Because your partner needs to hear from you that they’re ill – they’re not ‘crazy’, that they’re not ‘losing their mind’ and that they’re not ‘broken’. They need to know that what’s happening to them could happen to anyone.

So, let’s get cracking with what you need to know to support that message.

Your spouse has likely survived a life-threatening incident or they have witnessed a catastrophic event. That event (or multiple events) involved any – or a combination of – the following three elements:

  • Threat – of any kind
  • Horror (such as horrific injuries or the horror of witnessing a traumatic event)
  • Loss (of life, limbs, health, property, sense of safety, etc)

You can perhaps see then that anyone can be traumatised and potentially suffer full-blown PTSD after a single event such as:

  • an industrial accident
  • a natural disaster, such as a flood, forest fires, a hurricane, etc
  • a road traffic accident
  • a traumatic birth
  • fighting a war
  • living in – or escaping from – a war-torn country
  • reporting on a war
  • an assault/attack
  • a shooting
  • a hostage situation
  • a work-related incident (e.g. fire and rescue, police, ambulance, medical)
  • a traumatic medical treatment or event, such as a stroke
  • witnessing a traumatic event, particularly if you are/were close to the victim/casualty
Square banner. Text: 3 steps to helping your spouse with PTSD.

HOW TO HELP YOUR SPOUSE WITH PTSD

Step 1 – encourage seeking an assessment and help

If your spouse hasn’t been assessed by a suitably qualified mental health professional, encourage them to get this sorted as soon as possible.

To get the diagnosis of PTSD their symptoms have to match those described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Bear in mind that they can have many of the symptoms of PTSD without actually having the disorder. It’s possible for them to suffer just as much as someone diagnosed with the actual disorder. This is due to the vagaries and limitations of the DSM.

If your spouse has not had been offered treatment right away, you could suggest that they start with online counselling (please note, this is a paid-for service).

Step 2 – Learn about PTSD together

Learn as much as you can about the condition, whether or not your spouse has been ‘officially’ diagnosed. When you understand the problem, it becomes easier to explain what it’s like to live with PTSD to others.

Helping loved ones reduce their anxiety enables them to be more understanding, empathic and willing to offer help and support when needed.

Research shows that good social support can speed up recovery from PTSD.

Step 3 – Optimise your lifestyle together

I salute you if you’re not immediately skipping over this section! So, let me explain why this is soooo important.

Your spouse is using an enormous amount of energy to heal. The whole of their body/mind is involved in the healing process. That is regardless of whether or not they’ve sustained a physical injury.

The raw materials for that energy come from food which provides all the nutrients the body needs for every single cell to be able to work at its best.

So, now is the time to knock any ‘bad’ habits on the head and make both your health and well-being a priority.

A junk diet is detrimental not only to your physical health but also to your mental well-being. Watch The Junk Food Experiment. Did you know, for example, that consistently eating junk food can increase nightmares, lead to poor sleep and ‘brain-fog’?

How to get online relationship advice

Click the image to discover how you can get online relationship advice from a professional counsellor today…

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7 tips to help your spouse with PTSD

  1. Accept the ‘For Better or Worse, In Sickness and In Health’
    Both your lives have changed and now your spouse needs you more than ever. You’re facing one of the most important tasks in your married life – providing the best support you can muster. Know that your compassion and support can make a huge difference in your spouse’s recovery.
  2. Accept, for now, that you’re a carer
    Reduce your expectations of what your spouse is able to do and contribute to family life and a loving relationship. They barely exist themselves and simply don’t have any spare capacity beyond making it through another day. Imagine instead what it would be like to lay in bed with 20 broken bones while suffering major flu, a long infection and the most severe migraine. I hope you get my drift!
  3. Practice compassion and patience
    Your partner or spouse is likely to have very little spare capacity. That means the most minor irritation can suddenly become a big deal. It is definitely something with which professional counselling can make a difference by helping them to learn to regulate their emotions.
  4. Consider sleeping separately
    If your spouse or partner suffers from frequent nightmares. They may feel less guilty if they’re worried about preventing you to sleep. Take their lead with this though, as they may need you there to feel safe.
  5. Ask how you can help
    You may know, discover and want all kinds of ways your partner can help themselves. However, telling them what to do, though understanding, is likely to meet with resistance and anger. Recovering from PTSD happens in baby-steps. Even when you ask, your partner may not be able to express themselves very well – they may not know at that time. Hugely frustrating for you perhaps, but it’s best to learn to accept that they know best.
  6. Look after yourself!
    I can’t stress this enough. More on that in my article on how to help your spouse recover from a nervous breakdown.
  7. Write down three things to be grateful for that day
    Continue to do that every day. Research has revealed how gratefulness improves mental health.
    Karen at heysigmung.com has written a really helpful article about gratitude.

How to help your spouse with PTSD by cultivating an attitude of calmness and patience

Here’s how you can help your partner or spouse:

  • Let them know you’re ready to listen when they’re ready and able to talk about what happened or how they’re feeling, no matter how little they’re able to say.
  • Be honest when you’re not in a good place (talk about that and agree on a code word for when you feel out of sorts).
  • Tell them that you can only imagine what it takes to deal with PTSD, but that you know it takes enormous strength to get through this hour, this day or this time.
  • Don’t ever manipulate a situation to deliberately expose them to unforeseen circumstances in which there’s even the slightest risk their symptoms could be triggered.
  • Reassure them if they haven’t been able to do what they’d promised. Help them to achieve something by adapting the request if possible.
  • Agree on a code word for when they’re about to lose their temper with the children. Be aware, though, that they can at any moment be too overwhelmed to even attempt to warn you.
  • Remind them, if necessary, that you (and the children) also have the right to feel safe. See also: Signs of an abusive relationship.
  • Be conscious of- and take into account what their particular triggers are (you’ll become familiar with those over time).
  • Ask them to make your task a little easier by sharing what’s going on for them at any one time.
  • Be mindful of the detrimental effect nightmares and a lack of sleep have on their mood and functioning.
  • Encourage and guide them gently in some sort of activity when they’re on the sofa staring into nothing for much of the time.
  • Be mindful not to increase their sense of guilt.
  • Share with them about you and the kids even when you feel you get little back.
  • Help the children to understand why their (step)mum or dad is behaving the way they do.
  • Remind yourself not to take it personally if they appear to be unable to show any loving feelings (that feeling of numbness can affect their whole being)
  • Maintain a routine as much as possible – predictability contributes to a feeling of safety.
  • Be mindful not to act as an ‘enabler’ with regards to any addictive behaviour (see my article on living with an alcoholic).
  • Avoid or reduce stress-inducing triggers – noise or unpredictability, for example – as much as possible.
Photo: couple - arms around each other overlooking the sea. Text: 8 things to avoid when you're living with someone with PTSD.
Professional-Counselling.com

8 things to avoid when you’re living with someone with PTSD

  1. Don’t plan major outings or holidays for the time being.
  2. Don’t organise anything without your partner’s input, and expect last-minute changes.
  3. Don’t expect your partner to accompany you anywhere – allow them to choose.
  4. Don’t invite friends or family without discussing it with your partner.
  5. Don’t take it personally when your partner, unreasonably, blames you for something or snaps at you.
  6. Don’t be defensive when you know you could have done better – offer a genuine apology.
  7. Avoid ‘babying’ them, allow them to be the agent of their recovery.
  8. Don’t plan any DIY projects.

Communicate as much as possible about what you’re considering or planning. If there’s no choice or you simply want to satisfy your own or the children’s needs, aim to at least prepare your spouse.

What to do when you were already having relationship problems?

Perhaps your relationship or marriage was already on the rocks. What do you do then? Can or should you abandon someone in their hour of need? The 10 million-dollar question!

It’s super-challenging to be married to- or live with someone with PTSD when you really love them and everything was hunky-dory before that fateful day.

But what, when you were already doubting your relationship and whether your spouse is the right one for you? Perhaps a breakup was already on the cards.

The day that your spouse had that traumatic experience was the day their life changed and thereby yours. That meant that your relationship – as it was – has changed, probably forever.

As you may already have experienced, changes happened to:

  • the way the two of you communicated
  • how and how frequent (or not) you made love
  • how the two of your socialised, individually and together
  • what you did to entertain or develop yourself – your courses, training, hobbies or interests
  • how you parented your children
  • your work possibly
  • the way you shared the chores
  • how you or your spouse dealt with your admin and finances.

The decision now with what to do with your relationship has suddenly become even more fraught with difficulty, I totally get that.

Now that your partner is no longer the person they were before, how will that affect the problems you had prior to that event?

There’s no way of knowing how the dynamics will have changed soon after your spouse got PTSD-related problems. Only time will tell.

The best I can do for you is to give you some things to consider. So, here are some points to help you contemplate what to do next:

  • You have the right to feel safe – consider thereby your emotional, physical, sexual safety.
  • Your children have the right to feel safe and, significantly, they are dependent on you.
  • You cannot heal your spouse, they are responsible for their own health, that includes their mental health.
  • You are not your spouse’s therapist, you can only offer your compassion, love and support.
  • Breaking up and getting a divorce is a considerable financial, emotional and practical burden.
  • You need, ideally, a good enough social support network.
  • You’ll probably have to rely on resources your spouse might provide if you’re unable to financially support yourself (and your children). Bear in mind that your spouse’s work situation may also change.
  • You’re unlikely to make the best decision in the middle of a crisis. Making a life-changing decision when your circumstances have only recently changed may not be a good idea.

However, I’d like you to, at least, contemplate the new reality as a potential opportunity! As human beings, we’re far more capable than we ever thought we could be. If you had been in any doubt of your relationship, you could perhaps give it another chance now the dynamics between the two of you have so dramatically changed.

Finally

When you really love your spouse or partner, you’ll doubtless take on the mantle of carer.

In many ways, it’s a beautiful role to perform. To be there for a loved one when they’re most in need calls for you to dig deep. You’ll discover resources you didn’t realise you had.

Whether it’s continuing to love someone with PTSD, or deciding to end the relationship or divorce your spouse – I know you’re going through a tough time right now.

Whatever life looks like for you now, I hope that you may, together or alone, find peace and happiness. I’m rooting for you.

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Other interesting links

Brain circuit dysfunction in post-traumatic stress disorder: from mouse to man

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