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Worst Thing to Do or Say to Someone With PTSD

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Dr. Laura Tanzini

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Quick Overview

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. This could include situations like a serious car accident, natural disasters, terrorist acts, war, domestic violence, mass shootings, the unexpected death of someone you love, or violent personal assaults.

People with PTSD may relive the trauma through distressing dreams and flashbacks and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability, and guilt. For someone with PTSD, nightmares also cause difficulty sleeping, which leads to lower energy and losing interest in activities they once enjoyed.

 

An infographic titled "Understanding PTSD Symptoms" with four sections summarizing the key symptoms: Intrusion (flashbacks and nightmares), Avoidance (withdrawal and isolation), Changes in Cognition and Mood (detachment, negative emotions, distorted beliefs, and diminished interest), and Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity (aggressive behavior, sleep disturbances, being easily startled, difficulty concentrating, and extreme vigilance)

PTSD Symptoms

Understanding the symptoms of PTSD is the key to recognizing why certain actions or words can be harmful and how a traumatic incident can cause someone to develop debilitating symptoms of PTSD. The symptoms are typically grouped into four categories:

  • Intrusion: Unwanted and intrusive memories of the traumatic events, which can manifest as flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Avoidance: Deliberate efforts to avoid trauma reminders, including people, places, activities, and situations that bring back memories. This can look like withdrawal or social isolation.
  • Changes in Cognition and Mood: This includes feelings of detachment or estrangement from others, persistent negative emotions (such as fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame), distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” or “No one can be trusted”), and diminished interest in significant activities. This is where strategies for overcoming hopelessness can be particularly effective.
  • Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity: These are manifested as aggressive, reckless, or self-destructive behavior, sleep disturbances, being easily startled, difficulty concentrating, or extreme vigilance. They impact a person’s daily functioning.

Worst Thing To Do To Someone with PTSD

When someone is battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you should be careful to approach them with sensitivity and understanding. Unfortunately, some actions and words exacerbate their condition, making it even more challenging for them to cope with daily life.

Understanding the worst things to do or say to someone with PTSD can help you foster a supportive environment while avoiding inadvertently causing harm. Here are some sentences and attitudes that can actually harm a person with post-traumatic stress disorder, even if you’re trying to help.

 

“It’s all in your head.”

Feeling dismissed and invalidated is one of the worst experiences for someone with PTSD. It’s like being told your pain isn’t real, your struggles aren’t valid. But PTSD is not just a figment of imagination; it’s a genuine battle with haunting memories and overwhelming emotions, whether or not the outside observer understands that.

 

“It’s not that bad.”

It can feel incredibly isolating when you’re told that what you’re going through isn’t significant. The pain and distress caused by PTSD are genuine, even if they might not be visible to others. It’s like being told your experiences don’t matter, when in reality, they shape every aspect of your life.

 

“Just relax.”

PTSD can feel like trying to stay calm against a storm within. PTSD and similar mental health disorders are a constant battle against intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions. “Just relax” is one of those pieces of unsolicited advice that oversimplifies the deep-rooted struggles that come with PTSD and can make the person feel even more misunderstood.

 

“How many people did you kill?” (And Other Intrusions)

Intrusive questions about someone’s trauma can feel like reopening old wounds, especially for war veterans. It brings up all the pain and guilt associated with those memories. PTSD is not a topic for casual curiosity; it’s a deeply personal struggle that deserves respect and sensitivity.

 

“You’re just looking for attention.”

Being accused of seeking attention for your trauma can feel like a betrayal. It’s like being told your pain is insignificant and unworthy of acknowledgment. But the reality is, PTSD is a serious mental health condition that requires understanding and support, not dismissal or accusations.

 

“Get over it” or “Just snap out of it.”

If you tell someone to simply “get over” PTSD, you’re basically commanding them to climb a mountain without any gear. PTSD is a complex journey of healing and self-discovery; it doesn’t have a quick fix, and telling someone to “snap out of it” only adds to their burden of guilt, shame, and other unpleasant emotions.

 

“People have been through worse.”

Each person’s traumatic experience is unique and deeply personal, and it can’t be compared to anyone else’s traumatic experiences. It’s not just about what happened to develop PTSD; it’s about how it affected you and your ability to cope.

 

“Poor thing, you got triggered! You must be really sensitive!”

Being patronized for experiencing PTSD triggers is like being kicked when you’re already down. It’s not just about sensitivity; it’s about the complex interplay of past trauma and present experiences. Experiences that trigger PTSD symptoms are not a sign of weakness but a reminder of the scars that still need healing.

 

“I know how you feel.”

Even if that person has gone through similar trauma, hearing someone claim to know your pain can feel invalidating and frustrating. While empathy is appreciated, true understanding of PTSD requires a willingness to listen without judgment and to acknowledge the unique struggles, trauma, and negative thoughts of each individual.

 

“Just talk it out. What’s your traumatic experience?”

If someone pressures you to dig up and unpack your trauma, it can feel like having your wounds prodded without consent. This is especially true and emotionally taxing if a lack of trust and safety is required to share such deeply personal experiences. Encouraging someone to talk about their trauma without proper support and guidance can retraumatize them and hinder their PTSD healing journey.

 

“You’re just being paranoid.”

Being told you’re paranoid can make you feel like your valid concerns don’t matter; in many cases, it may even come across as an accusation that dredges up negative feelings. The genuine anxiety, panic attacks, and hyper-vigilance typical of PTSD go way beyond a fleeting paranoid thought. Disregarding someone’s strong emotions only adds to their sense of isolation, making it harder for them to seek the professional help they need.


Best Ways to Respond to Someone With PTSD

You should encourage your friend or family member struggling with PTSD to get help from professionals in mental disorders, including PTSD. Therapists specialized in trauma-focused approaches and treatment options, such as cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), Cognitive Processing Therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), can provide tailored interventions to help them process their experiences and develop coping strategies.

In the end, it’s about finding the right therapist and approach for whatever mental health or substance abuse issues the person is facing. This is especially important in cases where the connection between PTSD and depression is apparent.

Plus, connecting them with a support system or peer networks for people who have experienced similar traumas can help a person feel understood and validated. These groups can also help someone with PTSD stop feeling alienated, which goes a long way for PTSD recovery. Women who suffer from PTSD should check out a dedicated PTSD treatment center for women.

It’s important to recognize that addressing the trauma may evoke intense emotions and reactions. Self-care practices and coping mechanisms that promote emotional regulation and relaxation — such as mindfulness exercises, deep breathing techniques, or activities that bring comfort and joy — play a vital role in combating PTSD and other mental illnesses.

Healing is a journey, and it’s okay to seek support and take breaks whenever you need to. Help foster an environment of compassion, patience, social support, and understanding. You can play a key role in aiding someone with PTSD to navigate their healing process with resilience and hope.

Addressing the Traumatic Event

When someone with PTSD opens up about their traumatic experience, the most important thing is to listen with empathy and without judgment and offer support. Your main goal must be to create a safe and supportive environment where they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. Encourage them to talk at their own pace and reassure them that they are not alone in their struggles.

What To Do When Traumatic Events Occur

If a traumatic event occurs in the presence of someone with PTSD, it’s essential to prioritize their safety and well-being. Remain calm and reassure them, letting them know you are there to support them. Respect their boundaries and avoid pressuring them to talk about the event until they are ready. Offer practical assistance and help them access and seek professional support from the best PTSD treatment centers.


The Bottom Line

Here’s what to do when you’re interacting with someone with PTSD:

  • Listen with empathy and without judgment when someone with PTSD opens up about their experiences.
  • Avoid minimizing the struggles of trauma survivors, and don’t dismiss their emotions.
  • Prioritize their safety and well-being in the event of a traumatic incident, and actively prevent similar trauma where possible.
  • Encourage them to seek professional help from qualified therapists specializing in trauma-focused approaches.
  • Foster a supportive environment by connecting them with support groups or peer networks.
  • Encourage self-care practices and coping mechanisms that promote emotional regulation and relaxation.
  • Remember that healing is a journey, and seeking support and taking breaks when needed is okay.
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Author Bio

Dr. Laura Tanzini, DrPh, MA, MFT

Dr. Laura Tanzini is a highly educated and accomplished professional with a background in biology and psychology. She received a BS in Biology from UC Riverside, an MA in psychology from Phillips Graduate Institute, and a Doctorate in Public Health with a specialty in Lifestyle Medicine from Loma Linda University.

Dr. Laura Tanzini is a Board Certified Professional Counselor, Integrative Medicine Clinician, and PTSD Clinician. She has worked in multiple medical hospitals, mental health institutions, and inpatient eating disorder clinics. Also, Dr. Tanzini has written scholarly papers and spoken on various topics related to nutrition, stress, menopause, obesity, depression, anxiety, and human development.