This section is for friends or family who wish to support someone who has PTSD. If you are a work colleague of someone who has PTSD, this section may also be useful for you.
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
- 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 or arguments. Understanding their triggers could help you to avoid these situations, and feel more prepared when flashbacks happen.
Tips on helping someone who is experiencing a flashback
Flashbacks are vivid experiences in which someone relives aspects of a traumatic event. It can be hard to know how to help during a flashback, but you don't need special training to support someone who is having one. It could help if you:
- try to stay calm
- gently tell them that they are having a flashback
- avoid making any sudden movements
- encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply
- encourage them to describe their surroundings.
(See our sections What are flashbacks? and tips for coping with flashbacks for more information.)
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 getting easily 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:
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.
Support options for you
A traumatic event can have a major impact not just on those who lived through it, but also on that person’s close family, friends and colleagues. If you experience symptoms of PTSD yourself while supporting someone through a trauma (sometimes called secondary trauma), it might help to try some of the tips on our self-care for PTSD page.
It's also a good idea to talk to your GP about how you're feeling, and ask if they can offer you any treatment or support. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (the organisation that produces guidelines on best practice in healthcare) says professionals should consider the impact of traumatic events on relatives and think about how to provide appropriate care.
This information was published in March 2018. We will revise it in 2020.