Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Explains what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
How can friends and family help?
It can be really hard to see someone you care about experiencing the symptoms of PTSD or complex PTSD. This page has some suggestions for ways you can support them while also looking after your own wellbeing.
Listen to them
If you feel able to, you could help by:
- giving them time to talk at their own pace – it's important not to pressure them
- allowing them to be upset about what has happened
- not making assumptions about how they feel right now, or how they felt in the past
- not dismissing their experiences by saying "it could have been worse" or questioning why they didn't say or do something differently.
No one around me understood what I was going through. I found it hard to explain. Words just couldn't do justice to what I was going through.
Try not to judge
If you've not experienced PTSD yourself, it can be hard to understand why your friend or family member can't seem to 'move on'. It's understandable to wish things could get back to normal, but it's important not to blame them or put pressure on them to get better without the time and support they need.
Learn their triggers
Each person will have a different experience of PTSD, so it might help to talk about what sorts of situations or conversations might trigger flashbacks or difficult feelings. For example, they might be particularly distressed by loud noises, arguments or particular places. Understanding their triggers could help you to avoid these situations, and feel more prepared when flashbacks happen.
Plan ahead for difficult times
When your friend or relative is feeling well, it can be helpful to discuss with them how you can help if they become unwell or if a crisis happens. You could:
- encourage them to write a crisis plan
- discuss which symptoms you can look out for
- get to know their triggers and plan how to cope with them.
This can help them to avoid crises or manage them differently in future where possible. When having these conversations, make sure you also think about how much you can cope with and try to only offer support that you feel able to give. It is important to look after yourself too.
Respect their personal space
People who experience PTSD may often feel jumpy or on edge. They may be easily startled or feel they need to constantly watch out for danger. It can help if you:
- avoid crowding the person
- don't touch or hug them without permission
- try not to startle or surprise them.
Look out for warning signs
You might see a change in the behaviour of the person you want to support. For example:
- a change in their mood, such as often feeling low, anxious, upset, angry or irritated
- a change in performance at work, such as lateness or missing deadlines
- a change in energy levels, such as extreme alertness or a lack of concentration.
If you notice these sorts of changes in someone close to you, you could ask them how they are feeling. This might encourage them to open up.
Help them to find support
If they want you to, you could help your friend or family member to find further support. For example you could:
Look after your own mental health
It's important to remember that your mental health matters too. Our pages on supporting someone else to seek help, how to cope when supporting someone else, managing stress and maintaining your wellbeing all have lots of information and tips on how to look after yourself.
This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.
References and bibliography available on request.
If you want to reproduce this content, see our permissions and licensing page.