There is a lot of information circulating about identifying and getting appropriate treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Much of that information discusses how research has consistently demonstrated that social support is vital to recovery and is one of the biggest protective factors against post-traumatic stress disorder. Social support has a number of positive benefits following a trauma, including reducing feelings of depression, guilt, loneliness, low self-esteem, stress, and social withdrawal.
While one may recognize the importance of social support for our battle buddies with PTSD, it may be difficult to determine how to go about providing good social support to those who need it most. Some individuals struggling with their symptoms may actually alienate those around them, making it even more difficult for friends to reach out and provide support. This is a difficult dilemma to navigate.
In order to assist those struggling to find a way to support a friend through his or her struggle with PTSD, here are a few tips and suggestions.
1. Be patient.
Coping with and healing after trauma takes time, even when the individual is working hard and everything is going well. Setbacks are inevitable. As such, it is important to stay positive and understanding. And most importantly, it is crucial for you to continue to be there for your friend despite his or her setbacks.
2. Don’t expect much in return.
You may feel like you spend a lot of time reaching out and trying to be there for your friend, but they rarely take you up on your offer or reciprocate by being there for you. Withdrawing from friends is a hallmark symptom of PTSD. It is not personal or reflective of how much they value you or your efforts. A person with PTSD may have incredible difficulty reaching out to you, or even taking you up on your offers. It may be helpful to revert back to tip #1: “Be patient.” The healing journey looks different for everyone. It is hard to know what someone will need, but be sure they know you are a safe person to approach. Be steadfast in your support.
3. Don’t judge.
Sometimes you may find yourself becoming frustrated and thinking something along the lines of “I, or someone I know, went through something similar, and didn’t develop PTSD. I don’t know what your problem is.” Do not beat yourself up for having this thought, but try to remember that everyone is different, and as such, everyone’s response to trauma is different. As Victor Frankl famously wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” Try to be open to the idea that everyone has their own journey to make, and it may not be your way.
4. Don’t pressure a friend to talk about their trauma.
Trauma is, obviously, a sensitive topic. While talking about trauma can be therapeutic, in the wrong context, it can actually make coping more difficult. It is best to make it known to your friend that you are there for him or her if they need it, but do not force it.
5. Reach out.
Individuals with PTSD frequently withdraw from their social support system. However, social support is an enormous protective factor against PTSD at the same time. Your friend needs you, even if they’re not reaching out to you. Try to remember that it is important for you to reach out to them. However, it is also important to respect their boundaries. Demonstrate that you are available, make it as easy as possible for them to reach out to you, and demonstrate you are a safe person to approach if he or she needs you. Importantly, being perceived as safe may mean not “pushing” your friend too far. Your support can counteract some very real symptoms of PTSD including helplessness, grief, and rumination. Even if you are not talking about the trauma or any of his or her difficulties, spending quality time together is invaluable. In contrast, if you push too hard, you may find your battle buddy feels overwhelmed and retreats further away from you to feel safe.
If your friend chooses to talk and share with you, the best thing you can do is listen. Try to listen without expectations or judgments. Don’t worry about giving advice or imparting wisdom, just listen. Validate them, be empathic, and listen. Even if he or she needs to talk about the same thing over and over again, try to be patient and listen. You may be tempted to urge them to stop talking about the same thing over and over again and “get over it” or “move on,” but this is all part of the process. Instead of trying to guide them in their journey, just show that you will walk alongside them. You may not like what you hear, but try to be understanding of their experiences and reactions so they feels safe coming to you again if need be.
7. Make your battle buddy feel secure.
Essentially, this means be a trustworthy and reliable friend. Be dependable, reassuring, and follow through on the promises you make. Be there for your friend when they need you. Be supportive by making it clear you know he or she is capable of recovery. Do not try to take control over their life and make decisions for them; rather, empower, encourage, and support them. Make plans with them. And do not gossip or talk behind his or her back or subtly cut him or her out of your future.
8. Encourage your battle buddy to seek treatment.
But be sure to do so in a non-shaming, non-patronizing way. Wait for an appropriate moment (e.g., not when either of you is angry), and be sure to approach the topic in a sensitive manner in a safe environment. Do not force the issue. Acknowledge the many reasons why a person would be reluctant to seek treatment, but emphasize all the possible benefits. Discuss that you are not suggesting therapy because they are “crazy,” but because it can help recovery and help build new coping and communication skills.
9. Be prepared for some confusing emotions and be kind to yourself.
You will probably get very frustrated with your friend at times. Be prepared for these mixed feelings, and do not beat yourself up for them. Becoming worn out or frustrated does not mean you care any less about your friend.
10. Take care of yourself and set boundaries.
Be realistic about what you are able to give your battle buddy. Take care of your own physical and mental health first. You cannot be of any help to your friend if you are exhausted, burned out, and have nothing left to give. Make sure you have your own social support system and that you are taking time for yourself. Be sure to reach out for help if you need it. You do not need to be alone in caring for your friend, or in caring for yourself.
As military members, it is important to do all we can to be supportive of one another. Luckily, social support is one of the absolute best ways to heal from PTSD. But despite how important it is, giving social support to those with PTSD is often difficult because of the tendency to withdraw socially. It is a bit of a catch-22, but there is hope. Bottom line: Be the battle buddy your friends need you to be.