Families Fighting PTSD

Published 9/17/13 by Renée M. Calhoun, LMFT CTTS

How to get your loved ones to fight against PTSD symptoms rather than about them.

I am often asked how people should talk to their friends and family members about their recent Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis, or ongoing symptoms. Those affected struggle to talk about PTSD without causing those closest to them alarm, or further stigmatizing themselves or others.

“My family just doesn’t understand.”  This is a common reaction to my inquiry about whether families are supportive of my clients’ recovery from PTSD.  It is not that family and friends are not trying to understand; it’s just that they do not have enough accurate information to truly empathize.  Often family members feel as if they are responsible for your PTSD diagnosis. While they can understand that they were not necessarily a part or cause of the trauma, they may feel accountable to help you through the event or feel as if they did not do enough to prevent the trauma. Other family members think of PTSD as a “veteran’s disease” or as a defense in legal cases when someone has disassociated and caused harm to someone or something. When their little angel tells them they have the same diagnosis as a murderer, or service member, they do not understand.  And why would they? Their child is not a veteran and they can’t fathom that their little son or daughter would ever hurt a bug, let alone a person.

So how do you explain PTSD and its potential implications for you and those around you?  Start out with the facts, and expand with your personal story as you feel comfortable.  People are likely to fight with you about your experience because they struggle to put themselves in your shoes. Even those around you who experienced and/ or witnessed the same traumatic event may have had a completely different experience and related consequences.  These different experiences are where the perceived lack of support and “not understanding” are derived.

Teach your family members the statistics of PTSD in America.  About 8% of those adults experiencing a traumatic event receive a diagnosis for PTSD with women being more likely to receive the diagnosis then men.  However, about 60% of men and 51% of women experience a traumatic event in their lifetime.  So what makes that 8% different? The answer is a combination of many factors, but mostly your perception of the event and the threat that you felt.  Your perception is based on the memory bank you have of past experiences and your emotional state before, during, and after the event. The way that you organize the trauma in your mind and the help that you receive (or don’t receive) directly after the trauma shape your symptomology.

But how exactly do you define trauma? To me, trauma includes anything that causes someone to have “intense and frightening emotions”.  This simple definition makes it broad enough for most people to understand but more importantly relate to real life experiences.  Almost everyone has experienced some sort of trauma in their lives.  Trauma becomes PTSD when the symptoms are pervasive and lasting longer than one month after the traumatic event.

Explain to your family and friends your symptoms: flashbacks, anxiety, hyper vigilance, depression, etc.  Sometimes these symptoms elicit feelings in your family members that you were not aware of.  Some family and friends are afraid, angry, confused and saddened by the onset of these symptoms in you.  They do not like seeing their loved one in pain or distress but they are not quite sure how to deal with either the symptoms or you.  Explain to them that exhibiting symptoms such as these is your body’s way of protecting you from further trauma.  Remaining hyper vigilant and paying close attention to the details around you is your body’s way of scanning for perceived danger and watching guard for any abnormalities in your environment.  Depression is your body’s way of resting after all of the hard work it takes to be hyper vigilant. In order for this intervention to be most successful, you need to see your symptoms as protective rather than hurtful.  Explain to your family that you do not like having these symptoms and that exhibiting these symptoms is very uncomfortable for you, however your body is fighting off danger and they are protective mechanisms. Until you are able to reorganize your mind into what is helpful and what is harmful, your body is just doing its job. Remind them that this is exactly what the body does when it is exposed to a virus.  The infected person may develop a runny nose, feel run down, sneeze and cough. These are all ways your body is fighting a disease and while it’s annoying to have to carry tissues with you everywhere you go, you trust your body to rid yourself of the disease. Going to therapy, practicing yoga, and taking medications are things that you may need to do in order to fight off this disorder.

Each person and each family will have a different recipe to recover from PTSD. It is important to ask your loved ones to help you fight against the symptoms and stigma of PTSD rather than fight with you about the diagnosis or your behaviors.

For more help on how to talk to your loved ones about your PTSD diagnosis, please talk to a licensed mental health professional or visit www.ReneeCalhoun.com.

With over five years experience as a marriage and family therapist, and as a graduate of LaSalle University specializing in Clinical Counseling Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, Renée currently practices as a Pennsylvania licensed marriage and family therapist and AAMFT Approved Supervisor in training providing individual, couples, family, and group therapy. She is also a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor as well as a Certified Tobacco Treatment Specialist. She also serves on the Pennsylvania Marriage and Family Therapy Board and helps connect current marriage and family therapy students and pre-licensure graduates with licensed professionals in their regions to network and obtain clinical supervision. Among her areas of expertise are addiction and recovery, Autism, trauma, and relationship struggles.