for better mental health

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Explains what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD are, and provides information on how you can access treatment and support. Includes self-care tips and guidance for friends and family.

How can I help myself?

Living with PTSD can feel overwhelming. This page offers some practical suggestions for looking after yourself.

Tips on coping with flashbacks

Flashbacks can be very distressing, but there are things you can do that might help. You could:

  • Focus on your breathing. When you are frightened, you might stop breathing normally. This increases feelings of fear and panic, so it can help to concentrate on breathing slowly in and out while counting to five.
  • Carry an object that reminds you of the present. Some people find it helpful to touch or look at a particular object during a flashback. This might be something you decide to carry in your pocket or bag, or something that you have with you anyway, such as a keyring or a piece of jewellery.
  • Tell yourself that you are safe. It may help to tell yourself that the trauma is over and you are safe now. It can be hard to think in this way during a flashback, so it could help to write down or record some useful phrases at a time when you're feeling better.
  • Comfort yourself. For example, you could curl up in a blanket, cuddle a pet, listen to soothing music or watch a favourite film.
  • Keep a diary. Making a note of what happens when you have a flashback could help you spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you. You might also learn to notice early signs that they are beginning to happen.
  • Try grounding techniques. Grounding techniques can keep you connected to the present and help you cope with flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. For example, you could describe your surroundings out loud or count objects of a particular type or colour. (See our page on self-care for dissociative disorders for more information on grounding techniques.)

"You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf; through my PTSD recovery journey I've learnt that emotions come and go in waves […] it's best not to fight against them but ride with them."

You might find that certain experiences, situations or people seem to trigger flashbacks or other symptoms. These might include specific reminders of past trauma, such as smells, sounds, words, places or particular types of books or films. Some people find things especially difficult on significant dates, such as the anniversary of a traumatic experience.

Lots of people who experience PTSD find it hard to open up to others. This may be because you feel unable to talk about what has happened to you. However, you don't need to be able to describe the trauma to tell someone how you are currently feeling.

It could help to talk to a friend or family member, or a professional such as a GP or a trained listener at a helpline. (See our page on telephone support for more information about helplines.)

Everyone has their own unique response to trauma and it's important to take things at your own pace. For example, it may not be helpful to talk about your experiences before you feel ready. Try to be patient with yourself and don't judge yourself harshly for needing time and support to recover from PTSD.

Peer support brings together people who have had similar experiences, which some people find very helpful. (See our pages on peer support for more information about what it involves and how to find a peer support group to suit you.)

"Hope. There is always hope. With the right treatment and support, things will get better. I’m a living testament."

You might find it useful to contact an organisation that specialises in advice and support for PTSD, such as ASSIST Trauma Care. It could also be helpful to find an organisation with expertise in the particular type of trauma you have experienced. (See our useful contacts page for details of relevant organisations.)

Coping with PTSD can be exhausting. You might feel like you can't find the energy to take care of yourself, but looking after your physical health can make a difference to how you feel emotionally. For example, it can help to:

  • Think about your diet. Eating regularly and keeping your blood sugar stable can help you cope when things feel difficult. (See our pages on food and mood for more information.)
  • Try to exercise. Exercise can be really helpful for your mental wellbeing. (See our pages on physical activity for more information.)
  • Spend time outside. The outside world might feel overwhelming, but spending time in green space can boost your wellbeing. (See our pages on nature and mental health for more information.)
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. While you might want to use drugs or alcohol to cope with difficult feelings, memories or physical pain, they can make you feel worse in the long run. They can also make other problems worse, such as difficulty sleeping. (See our pages on recreational drugs and alcohol for more information.)

PTSD and sleep problems

Lots of people who experience PTSD have problems sleeping. You might find it hard to fall or stay asleep, feel unsafe during the night, or feel anxious or afraid of having nightmares. (See our page on coping with sleep problems for more information.)

"The things that helped me: I took up running (which helped me sleep, as it seemed to ‘clear’ the excess adrenaline); talking to lots of my friends and my sisters, again and again; giving up sugar and alcohol (I was using them as masks for my erratic behaviour)."

This information was published in May 2017. We will revise it in 2020.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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