What to say to someone with PTSD?

“Put one foot in front of the other”
A good friend of mine called and asked me to come over to her house. “I don’t know how,” was my frank answer. Spaced out and full of anxiety, it seemed like an ambitious task. “That’s easy. Put one foot in front of the other,” she said with a smile, “and eventually, you’ll be here!” That’s been one of my most useful mantras to this day. 

You don’t know what to say to someone with PTSD. So, you do nothing. Or, you’re afraid of doing wrong and fearful that your friend can sniff you out.

You care about your friend. But you’re unsure what to say to him/her. You want to support. Instead, you’re tip-toeing around and sometimes avoid him/her.

We’ve all done it. We’re afraid of doing wrong. So we do nothing. Or we are so fearful that our friend can sense it. 

You might try some of these approaches: 

“I’m uncertain of what to do, but I’m here anyway.” 

“Sorry, I cannot handle your story, but I can handle your tears.”

“Is there anything I can do to help you feel safer?”

Imagine yourself in a crisis. How would it be like if your friend said: “I’m unsure of what to do, but I’m here anyway.” Would you appreciate that? 

“Put one foot in front of the other” and eventually you'll be there
“Put one foot in front of the other”

  “The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to feel important.” John Dewey

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” William James

These principles apply to all human beings. So no matter what kind of traumas we have suffered, we all want to feel extraordinary and be appreciated.

Folks with PTSD have survived something that exceeded the normal capacity of the brain. If you’re wondering what to say to people with PTSD, think about them as ordinary people with normal reactions to abnormal incidences. 

Count on your friend and let him/her know. The mere fact that some count on you can give meaning to life. 

Set clear boundaries. You are not responsible for anyone’s life. 

Don’t come with excuses. If you haven’t met for a while, state the fact and say “good to see you again” (if you mean in).  

Ask how they want you to treat them. 

Say, “I cannot handle your story, but I can handle your tears.” – Money can buy a therapist, but not a friend.

Ask them to join a party, even though you’re sure they’ll say no. Because they will not forget your words. 

If there’s the elephant in the room, say it out loud. (telling that it is pink with white polka dots might soften it out a bit).

Use humor. 

Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. 

Many people with PTSD tend to minimize their experience. You have no way of knowing the whole picture. Thou you think their trauma might seem too exaggerated, don’t say it out loud. Ask, “What do you mean?….. instead of “It cannot be that bad.”

  • Sit with the pain, but lift the spirit. 
  • Ask for positive experiences. 
  • Ask if they remember enjoyable moments in your life.
  • Tell about a time you really felt crazy or even did stupid things. We all do. Your story can normalize their ways of coping without downplaying it. 

If they rant and tell you about all the shit in their life say: “Do you think I’m a trash bin?”

If they are in shame when you offer help to to say:

“It’s good to receive help. I’m sure you would have done the same for me!”

If you are worried, they are thinking about suicide, ask them directly.

Plagued with such thoughts can be incredibly lonely. Just the mere fact that you dare to ask can make a huge difference.

If you get a “yes,” the best you can do is to listen. And help your friend to find help. 

If it is an urgent situation, call the emergency. You are not responsible for someone else’s life. It is health professionals job to save a life. You are just a good friend. 

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