PTSD: How to notice signs and help others
Dorothy Selmon, LPC
The world has experienced an increased amount of stress, loss, uncertainty, frustration, and disappointment in the past year with COVID-19. This has created a lot of anxiety that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and panic attacks. As doors continue to re-open, we can be supports for family, friends, and neighbors who may be suffering from these conditions.
Helping others who may be struggling with PTSD comes down to a few small things that allow us to play an important role in the health of our families, friends, and community:
· Having a non-judgmental attitude
· Being a present support
· Setting clear boundaries
· Knowing how to get help
Often, persons with PTSD may experience an over-active threat response. We all have an alarm system that connects our brain and body and prepares us to act fast in a threatening situation. Often called the fight-or-flight response, it turns on when we need it to, and then goes back off when we are no longer in danger. Imagine: You’re out in the yard, you look down and see a venomous snake right by your foot or your child’s foot. My guess is either you’re grabbing your child and running, or that snake is DEAD. That’s our alarm system in action!
In persons with PTSD, this alarm system is extra sensitive. For many, the experience is like it never turns back “off,” even when no threat is present. Instead of going back to feeling calm or neutral, someone with PTSD may constantly feel on edge, ready to jump at anything. They may also experience memories of the trauma that seem to pop up out of nowhere (though often there are things that trigger this reaction), and they might have nightmares, reliving what happened on repeat. A lack of quality sleep and random scary memories just add to feelings of restlessness or being on edge.
Some people may also experience panic attacks, though this can also be separate from PTSD. Here’s what it could look like if someone is having a panic attack:
· Fast, short breaths
· May complain of chest pain
· May lose focus on the conversation
· May complain of feeling like they’re about to throw up
Symptoms can be similar to those experienced during a heart attack, so how do you know if it’s panic or an actual heart attack? Panic symptoms will go away. Heart attack symptoms will not. If at any point you believe something to be an emergency, call 911 and get medical attention right away.
So, how can you help someone experiencing a panic attack? Telling someone who is noticeably agitated to calm down, or that they are over-reacting, probably won’t work. One technique that can help someone experiencing a panic attack is called “grounding.” Our mind and body have a strong bond, so grounding includes both. Ask the person, if they are willing, to engage each of the five senses one by one and make a verbal list. Here’s what I mean:
· 5 things you can see
· 4 things you can touch or physically feel
· 3 things you can hear
· 2 things you can smell
· 1 thing you can taste
This brings the focus back to the present, sensory moment. Not the past where bad things may have happened, or the future. It brings us back to right now where he or she is likely safe.
Many people experiencing panic attacks are worried they are dying, that people may judge them if they freak out, or that they have “gone crazy.” One of the best things that we can do for a loved one in this situation is to have a non-judgmental attitude. In other words, be accepting without trying to get him or her to change. We can communicate our love for them by being there, doing fun activities together, and not making them feel bad for having a hard time.
Persons with PTSD may not want to talk about what they have experienced or go near people, places, and things that remind them of the event. That’s ok. Telling them what they “should” do now, or how they “should” have reacted then only adds to feelings of guilt that many people with this disorder already have. It’s also rarely effective.
On the other hand, allowing the person to choose for themselves what they would like to share, and actively listening can be empowering. Give this person your full attention and try to understand their perspective. Roll with it, as long as you and the other person are safe.
If the person who may have this disorder lives in your household, try to keep schedules as consistent as possible. Having a predictable schedule can help people with PTSD feel safer, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Routines help regulate both the mind and the body.
Additionally, having clear boundaries or expectations of appropriate behaviors can help too. When people know what to expect, oftentimes anxiety decreases. Boundaries help both you and the other person feel safe. Sometimes persons with PTSD may have anger outbursts and/or express intent to harm themselves or others. Take every threat to self or others seriously! Have a crisis plan made in advance for how you can seek help. Knowing your resources is a powerful tool that can save lives.
Anyone can develop PTSD if exposed to dangerous, or life-threatening situations. However, not everyone exposed to such situations will develop this mental health condition. Through having a non-judgmental attitude, being a present support, setting clear boundaries, and knowing how to get help, we can be positive supports for family, friends, and neighbors who may be suffering from PTSD.
If you are struggling with PTSD symptoms, talk to your provider about it. They can connect you with resources that can help. You can also reach out directly to organizations trained to help:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7)
Linea de vida nacional para la prevencion del suicidio: 888-628-9454
Community Crisis Response and Intervention: 1-833-364-2274
Respuesta e intervencion de crisis comunitarias 1-833-364-2274
National Institute of Mental Health
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service and Administration
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Dorothy Selmon is a behavioral health consultant serving patients at the HopeHealth Medical Plaza in Florence. She holds a Master of Science in clinical psychology, and has experience counseling patients in addictions, family, and individual therapy. She is fluent in both English and Spanish.