When someone in your life has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you’re going to encounter them when they’re triggered—and I don’t mean it in the cute and downright minimizing way that being “triggered” has come to mean on social media.
For someone with PTSD, being triggered means a full-on, nail-biting, fight, flight, or freeze response to a stimulus. We react to the world around us as if the traumatic event is reoccurring right in the moment—a world that may include our loved ones, whether they contributed to our trauma or not.
It is in those triggered moments that we who suffer from PTSD are likely to feel some combination of helplessness, terror for our lives, anger, or shock—perhaps all at once, perhaps in stages. We may behave like a cornered, frightened animal. As a supportive loved one, you too may experience feelings of helplessness and confusion in addition to your concern.
Depending on where we are in our healing process, we who suffer from PTSD may not even realize that we are triggered—particularly if we have complex trauma, or C-PTSD). Our reactions to our triggers can come out as an inappropriate reaction at you that can be both hurtful and confusing.
You may feel overwhelmed by what to do to help, and how to support both yourself and your loved one when their trigger has been pulled.
Here are a few tips for how to best support someone with PTSD while also caring for yourself.
1. It’s not about you, though you may have contributed to it.
Regardless of how triggered we might be, your number one responsibility is to take care of yourself in whatever way is best for you.
Whether that means removing yourself from the situation or not, being able to separate yourself from the equation is crucial. Know that anything you may have done is probably just the tip of the iceberg, and we are drowning in what’s hidden beneath the surface.
You are not responsible for the whole iceberg, so don’t take responsibility for what’s not yours. Making amends for something you may have said or done unconsciously, however, can go a long way.
If you feel you may have contributed to the pulling of our trigger, taking responsibility for your part can be a deeply healing experience for us. This may mean suspending your own defense mechanisms and simply asking, “Is there something I did or said that led to you being upset?” Oftentimes, we don’t even realize that we are triggered.
Like you, we are also human and don’t always have complete control of our reactions. We are trying to build trust in a world that feels hostile and unfriendly. You can choose to be that bridge in ways that are healthy and appropriate for you.
Showing us that it is safe to be upset and to tell you about it, especially if we are upset with you, shows us that there are safe, caring people in the world who respect our needs and boundaries. It helps reduce future PTSD episodes and helps us heal ourselves.
2. When we open up to you, don’t play the rescuer.
It can be difficult to hear the details of someone else’s trauma, or what they are experiencing now as they struggle with PTSD. You may not know what to say.
Know that it can be as terrifying for us as facing actual death to open up to you about our past or how we are feeling in the present.
You may be overwhelmed and uncertain about how to respond. When you care about someone and they have been through something terrible, that’s only natural. But consider whether it’s because you don’t know how to “fix” the situation or “make us feel better.” We need you to know that neither of these things are your responsibility.
If we have opened up to you, know that it was probably extremely difficult to do so. Also, know that it means we are able to feel some level of trust in you.
We are probably used to being abandoned or abused for having feelings and needs, whether physically or emotionally. We are probably used to abandoning ourselves. We are expecting you to do the same. Don’t just leave us hanging in the void, and say or do nothing.
While we don’t need you to fix us or save us, what we do need is for you to dig deep, suspend your own horror about what we have been through, and express empathy. The good news is, you don’t have to solve anything, you help us most by acknowledging our pain and staying present with us.
As survivors of trauma we probably don’t know how to acknowledge or stay present with our own pain. When someone who cares about us is able to, we begin to feel safe and learn it’s acceptable to do so for ourselves. While it’s not your responsibility to make us feel safe, your help with this is invaluable.
Though it is an understandable reaction to seeing a loved one in pain, trying to fix or rescue us simply contributes to our feeling more broken and unlovable. It also keeps us stuck in learned helplessness and victimhood. Like all humans, being seen and heard is all we are really longing for. The light of your loving awareness is the most precious gift you can give someone who is triggered.
3. If you really want to be there for us, ask us what we need.
We are probably terrified to ask you for help. You may be scrambling and feeling helpless yourself, like you don’t know what to do. The most powerful thing you can do to help someone with PTSD who is triggered, aside from genuine empathy, is to ask us what we need.
We may not even know what we need. We may never have been asked before. We may not feel safe enough to express our needs to you, or able to do so out loud.
What isn’t helpful is someone telling us what they think we need. We are already in a state of distrust and vulnerability. What we need help with, should you choose to do so, is identifying and feeling safe to express our needs when we are struggling. In fact, this is usually the underlying issue behind the trigger in the first place.
When we are triggered, we often lose access to the language center in our brain. Our amygdala has been hijacked, and we are reacting from a place of terror. We may struggle to express our needs to you. These are patterns of self-denial that we used to use to keep ourselves “safe” in toxic environments.
Asking how you can help us, and letting us know you are simply here for us no matter how much we are suffering, can be a life-altering experience for many of us with PTSD.
Even if you can’t seem to reach us when we are triggered, it touches something deep within us that can help us begin to tune into our own needs. This can help set us on the road to healing ourselves, and relieve some of the pressure that journey puts on you.
If you are close to someone who is struggling with PTSD triggers, and you’re still reading this, please know that we appreciate you.
It takes a courageous, loving person to open themselves up to the ways in which they can truly support us. Know that you can help us feel safe and build authentic loving connections in the world just by being present and willing to listen. As trauma survivors, we want to believe that there are good people in the world, like you, who truly care. So, as much as we may isolate and try to do it all alone, we can’t (and don’t want to) do it without you.