What not to say to someone with PTSD

Bryant Golden Blog

When you think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who comes to your mind? Often we associate this condition with soldiers, but it can affect civilians as well. It can follow a life-threatening situation, sexual trauma, a natural disaster, caring for a terminally ill child, and many other traumatic experiences. However, it also does not happen to everyone who survives trauma. There are theories around why this is and research that is continuously helping us to better understand the condition.

Here we simply want to outline a few things to never say to someone with PTSD. Please wipe these from your dialogue today.

1. That happened years ago and it still affects you like this?

Memories can last for years. Even with intense therapy, lingering memories can still exist. They pop up at the most inconvenient times. The word “trauma” is used for a reason. 

2. Wow, you get triggered so easily.

Everyone is different in how they deal with their experiences. Compassion and kindness go a long way in helping someone cope. Whether the individual is healing from sexual assault or war, no two people will have the exact same set of circumstances. Be understanding and help them to avoid areas and conditions that may cause the trigger. If you know your friend can’t handle crowds, offer to go to lunch with her instead of dinner. Help her ease into unfamiliar settings. 

It’s not funny to sneak up on someone with PTSD. If you know their triggers, then respect them. This is a huge NO. In general, people don’t like to be scared from behind or by having someone jump out at them. Put yourself in the place of the person suffering PTSD; their specific event may have begun from being surprised. This can evoke reactions of extreme fear or even extreme violence. It has the potential to place the individual in a situation where they are reliving the event.  

3. So what exactly happened to you? / I mean seriously, how bad could your experience have actually been? / How many of your friends died? / Well, what were you wearing? 

There is a time and place in any relationship where you can dig deeper. Being aware of when and where that moment exists is a skill you will need to learn. Most veterans don’t appreciate acquantainces asking for a kill count just as victims of sexual assault aren’t eager to share the details with you over dinner. Don’t treat their experiences as a passing or even a simple event that they could have avoided if they had only done things differently. If you have the opportunity and are close with the person, ask sincerely about what happened and then listen without judgment. Trust me when I say they spend enough time judging themselves. What they need is grace, compassion and kindness. 

4. Why are you always so serious and uptight? Suck it up! It’s just in your head; fix it! 

Really? If you’re aware of their problem, take the time to educate yourself. PTSD is a type of mental illness that requires professional care and years of work. As with any physical and mental illness, the amount of support surrounding the individual will have lasting impacts on their well-being. If you don’t know what’s going on, take a moment to look past your own discomfort and love your neighbor. Offer your presence and your strength. Let the person know that you are a safe place and willing to be part of their support system. 

Lastly, never, EVER say: You’re the one who signed up for the military. / What did you expect to happen? I guarantee what did happen was not what they signed up for or expected. 

What you can say to someone with PTSD

Let’s focus for a second on what you can say. Many individuals are actually very open about their experiences. Amy Cabo, remembered as the daughter in “The Case from Hell,” shares her story and writes about PTSD on her site. Listen to the people who are willing to share in order to help the people in your life who aren’t there yet. 

Instead of criticizing, try these statements instead:

  • I am proud of your courage/strength and you as you’re working through this. 
  • It sounds like a lot to deal with. 
  • If you need you me for any reason, I’m here to help to the best of my ability.
  • It’s OKto be hurt and angry.
  • What happened [or what you did] doesn’t make you a bad person. It sounds like an awful situation. 

Be supportive and be a friend. Feelings of guilt and shame almost always accompany PTSD. Survivor’s guilt from being the one or one of the few who survived has lasting traumatic impacts. The questions of why did it happen and why me or not me feed negative emotions and can send them spiraling deeper into bouts of depression and anxiety. 

Love them as Jesus did. He never used shame or guilt. He met people where they were, offered them compassion and gave of Himself willingly so that they could be healed. 

If you are wondering what it means to authentically follow Jesus, join us on Unfiltered Radio as we investigate who He claimed to be and how He taught us to interact with one another.