Think of the most awful event in your whole life. Then imagine reliving that time and time again while feeling powerless to stop. Your heart rate quickens, thoughts race, and breathing begins to race as your body begins the fight or flight response.
This is an example of how someone with PTSD might feel when triggered. Every person responds differently, but there are some common factors for all who suffer from this disorder. Although logically in a safe place, this person feels the panic and vulnerability from a past experience. Physical sensations accompany mental terror which makes this type of anxiety difficult to face alone.
Support people play a huge role in helping people with any type of illness or disorder. Finding my way out of the horrific thoughts and images that come with PTSD is nearly impossible to do by myself. The soft touch of my mother, patient listening of friends, blunt honesty of my father, and logical humor of my sisters have gotten me through many difficult moments.
However, like with other mental health issues, few people fully understand what PTSD is. Thus, many say hurtful or uninformed remarks accidentally. This listing of things not to say is not meant to bring guilt to support people or caregivers. Instead, I hope that it brings better awareness and helps people realize how PTSD affects the mind, body, and spirit.
- Calm down now or I will not talk to you. If you thought that you were in grave danger, would you be calm? Instead of forcing someone to stop panicking, try to sit with them and speak quietly until they settle down. Show them that they are safe with you even while they feel terrified.
- Just forget about it. Telling someone to forget about a traumatic event is like telling someone who is missing an leg to walk normally. We can learn to adapt to the world around and function in as normal a way as possible. However, that wound remains even if it closes up and we are given crutches. Few people can fully forget the past without repressing the memory (which is not usually a healthy response).
- Don’t you just repress the memory and forget about the whole thing? Repressing the experience might fix the problem temporarily. However, it is much more helpful to address the pain. This will take more time and effort but bring great healing in the end.
- The past is the past. You need to move forward with life. This statement is true to a certain extent. The problem with PTSD is that you continuously relive that past. It is no longer a memory but a current struggle that you face in your daily life. Thus, treating flashbacks as just an element of the past does not help deal with the present physical response and panicked emotions.
- You need to forgive them and forget what happened. I can have forgiven who hurt me but still struggle with what they did. One can not harbor a grudge but still suffer pain from the incident. If someone burns down your house, you can forgive them but that will not bring back your home. Similarly, PTSD can remain even after you have forgiven any involved parties.
- I thought only soldiers/orphans/abuse victims/etc. had that. Anyone can struggle with PTSD. People from all races, genders, socio-economic statuses, career paths, ages, and life experiences have this illness. Sure, there are some people who are more likely to have it, but that does not mean others cannot struggle with it.
- What happened to you was not that bad. I have enough guilt about this. No one was killed in front of me, my closest family is alive and well, I was raised in the middle-class with few needs – what should I be complaining for? Everyone reacts differently to life events. My nightmares are traumatic experiences as were events that others might have brushed off easily. Just because you have a fairly normal life with few troubles does not eliminate the possibility of PTSD. Sounds weird, I know, but that is the truth. Do not judge what has traumatized someone else.
- It is partially your fault because of how you dressed/how you acted/where you were/that you trusted them/etc. Taking responsibility is a good thing. However, there is a difference between realizing your part in a mistake and blaming a victim for a crime. Most people in a traumatic situation do not ask for what happens. Just because you trusted someone or wore a certain outfit does not give anyone else the right to beat, abuse, or use you. Yes, your judgement might have been lacking but that does not mean you asked for what happened.
- You are tainted because of what happened. The voices in my head whisper this to me all of the time. When others blame me for what happened, the guilt grows worse. Would you tell a little girl that she is dirty because of what an adult did to her? What about a young man who was trying to serve his country? No one is perfect or totally innocent. Telling someone that they are broken or soiled is wrong, however, and highly detrimental.
- Didn’t you kind of enjoy it? No, just no. This is said sometimes by the abuser or another member of the traumatic event. However, people afterwards might say this uncaring phrase. No one enjoys being in a traumatic event. The pain – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – is all so intense. Please do not think that the person suffering like the event.
What are some comments that you have heard that you would add to this list? Please let me know.