Ten Things Not to Say to Someone with PTSD

Me with wax figure of Moriarty

Ten Things Not to Say to Someone with PTSD

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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74 thoughts on “Ten Things Not to Say to Someone with PTSD

  1. Hope says:

    “You just need to pray.” This usually goes along with pushing forgiveness, but not always. It minimizes the problem and can be triggering for people who may have been traumatized in a religious setting. Even if it’s not triggering, it’s (usually) pushing your beliefs on someone who may not share them.

    “Have you taken your medication?” This is usually in response to acute PTSD symptoms like flashbacks and panic attacks. It’s incredibly condescending and stigmatizing. Besides, there are no medications that treat PTSD. Some people take meds to help with symptoms like depression or anxiety, but there is no medication that can undo the emotional damage of PTSD.

  2. 80smetalman says:

    Excellent post Anna! You are spot on in so many ways.

  3. mary says:

    Hi,
    Two things: 1) Thanks for writing this. It is hard to see where people are coming from and your “10 don’t say” lists are useful in seeing how a comment is perceived. 2) Since this is the second time it has come up, I’d like to offer another perspective on the “I’ll talk to you when you are calm.” Panic (Pan) was a greek god because they observed the speed with which it can spread through a set of people. When you are trying to help someone resisting that spread of panic can be exhausting, and most people react to emotional exhaustion with anger. The last thing you need when you are panicking is for someone who cares about you to loose their temper. So when a helper reaches that point, they have to find a way to get emotionally recharged before they become part of the problem. They have basically three options: Physically leaving you (bad idea), Loosing their temper (bad idea), putting up some emotional/verbal space between you so they can recover … “I’ll talk to you when you are calm” – still not perfect but until humans have unlimited emotional energy (heaven maybe?) probably a solution.
    I’m not saying this is what is going on every time, but I know it does happen.

    God Bless,

  4. Last year, I did something that would cause me to have something ‘like’ PTSD. I smoked pot, and it made me have a grand mal. (I have Epilepsy). And like… I would have twenty five seizures a day after that and I didn’t understand why. My dad always tells me ‘its all in your head’ and theatrically, I know that part is true. But it doesn’t hurt to hear it any less. My seizures feel real, everything is real. I’ve been getting better slowly, though. Thank you for posting this, 🙂

  5. Nonymous says:

    When I started 9th grade, I walked down the school stairs on my way home, this kid would punch me in the arm. I was very scared to walk down the stairs fearing this kid would hit me. I told school staff (who did an EXCELLENT job protecting me). They put him in a class where instead of switching classes every period, a different teacher would come into the classroom every period, so he wouldn’t be roaming the hallways. I was still afraid to walk the hallways and this kid would hit me when he got the chance. This kid had gym 1st period, and after that he would stay in one classroom all day. My day started 2nd period, but I came 1st period to avoid him. The kid hadn’t hit me in a while, so the counselor questioned why I took these measures to avoid him. I was still afraid of him, and when this kid hadn’t hit me in a while, the counselor would question why am I still afraid of seeing him. I’m not trying to paint her negatively, since she helped protect me. And she probably was trained as a high school counselor, not as a mental health professional. I think I did have PTSD, and I even had a panic attack. This was all in 9th grade. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Kelly Young says:

    “Are you bipolar?” Is another comment I have gotten more than once.
    Or, “Give it to God” or “I’ll pray for you”.

  7. […] is not a correction or rebuttal to Rose with Thorns.  https://annarosemeeds.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/ten-things-not-to-say-to-someone-with-ptsd/ I believe what she wrote is great; I recommend going over to read her comments and thoughts on […]

  8. […] not? and Why Not? (Part 2) – This blogger took my list of Ten Things Not to Say to Someone with PTSD and elaborated on it. Her words are very wise and […]

  9. June says:

    I also have been told I need to pray and turn my life over to God. I have done that over and over. Been asked: “have you been eating sugar again?” “just get over it” is a big one. “we all have had problems, you just learn to forgive and move on.” “You are just making that up.” “If you would just lose weight you would be just fine.” “Think positive thoughts,”

  10. Amy W. says:

    When friends say- ‘Just get over it or Let it go’ Don’t they think we would if we could??? Its been a year since my breakup- and Im still reeling it the events of that relationship. I wish I could move on, but still have dreams about that person, and how they did me wrong. I hate it.

  11. Vika says:

    “I stopped answering and blocked her for her good, cuz she still didn’t find any job and is wasting time on creating that grief world.”
    ~ Bijay, 1 of my “best friends”.

    “But I love you!” ~ he later.

    “If this is love, then what is hatred?” ~ my answer to him.

  12. Michelle says:

    I got tons of, “it being in my head” sometimes ” it’s over and just an excuse,” or ” why do you let it bother you.” I really didn’t get any support from anyone, but God, my counselor and a friend who had an extremely traumatic event happen in his life. I’ve always had a tendency to occasionally lock myself in my house, after what I went through I had to really fight hard to not lock myself up, some days I couldn’t fight. I ended up leaving college, running to the safety of a friend in another state who belittled my experiences so badly I had a nervous break down. Ten years of traumatic events, then add a life threatening situation and a narcissistic friend who had expected more to just, “shake it off” , top that with finding that I have dilated cardiomyopathy (a very weak heart). Well it. brought the fight back in me and I have gotten back together. I think my heart problem is due to the series of trauma, as mine is a combination of genetics and stress (broken heart syndrome), occurs mainly in the elderly when they experience the loss of a life partner and follow shortly after that partner. Being sick brought an urge to fight my butt off, but at the same time I am still learning to walk away and deal with my stress which is insanely difficult having ptsd. Seems like every little bump forces me into that fight or flight feeling. Isn’t it ironic how 10ish years of traumatic events seriously affected my health, and now it’s my health mentally and physically, that now I have to teach myself to deal and cope to get my life back. I’m not knocking anyone here for not wanting to give your problems to God. He, God really was the only person who was there for me and who I felt could understand. We were all raised differently. I’ve seen the stress church can offer. Many of us don’t believe in GOD, I for one do. My mother always told me God is in all of us. I can see where people’s comments about, “giving it to God” could be frustrating, however in a sense as we learn to cope with our issues we give those issues to something. It’s that inner voice of strength that has been beaten down for so many of us, that gets stronger and will rise to pull you through. Again for me, I feel that is God and his timing. I’m not pushing God either, but we are warriors any way you want to look at it. Warriors for a cause, the fight, ourselves, God. We may struggle, and it may be for however long. I laughed at a Facebook post, about giving our struggles to God and being stronger than our problem, that we beat it. The post kind of pissed me off, but than I realized, wow it’s true, I am still here, I survived that, I made it through all of it! In some ways I am weak, very weak, I can’t control my emotions, I still panic when I see someone who resembles the person who assaulted me, I fly off the handle, over protect, etc…… it has also however empowered me to know although I am bruised, scarred and beaten down, I truly survived the hardest event of my life. Every day I fight the demons it left behind, I just remind myself, you didn’t take me down, you failed and maybe it feels like it beat me, the reality , we are still here. We were stronger than whatever hurt us. Your best friend isn’t all the people who want to belittle your experience, it’s that voice inside each of us be kind to it. Nobody else’s opinion matters!!

    • Great response! Thank you so very much! I agree that God can certainly get you through anything. However, some Christians think that trusting God means you should not take medication, struggle with pain, or see a therapist. That is where the comment is difficult for me. I hope that makes sense.

  13. Reblogged this on Mad Tea Party in My Head and commented:
    I loved this ands it’s so true.

  14. Elena says:

    Hello! Thank u for such a great post! I’m a victim of domestic violence, and I always hear all these “you need to forget it”, “it’s in the past”, “you just need to love yourself”…and the most I hate is “you just need to find a man” (when I have a fear of living with someone)…Would be great if people could learn more about such things.

  15. dragons4me3 says:

    I’ve gone through a lot in my life, but I’ve never had a panic attack. I rarely get any kind of adrenaline rush. It’s just not me. Physical, verbal, and emotional attacks just annoyed me, and I don’t pay much attention to them afterwards. But I have friends who have severe panic attacks. One memorable occasion one friend came to me at work almost unable to speak. She was shaking and sweating and her eyes were showing her panic. When I held my hand out to her she clutched it with both of hers and nearly squeezed the blood out of it. I led her to a place we could both sit and just sat there silently. I breathed slowly and steadily and projected calmness as strongly as I could. Lots of people going by gave us weird looks and one asked if everything was okay, but she had calmed enough by then to thank them for their concern but reject their help. It took about half an hour before her body began to relax some and her panicked gasping slowed. She thanked me afterward but never said and I never asked what set her off. I knew she had lived through a rough life. I didn’t need to know what her brain was going through, I just wanted to know if she was okay now. After that, whenever she felt the tension beginning to build in her, she would come to me and just ask for a hug, and it would help the panic back off. She and other friends still have panic attacks, and I can’t always be there. But when I am, they know they can rely on me. I don’t talk at all, I just give them something to hold on to and anchor themselves.

  16. Phyllis says:

    I was raised in a physically abusive home. Seen my mother beaten almost every weekend. Saw my father cut my uncles throat ( he lived thank God). Starting some where around 5 years of age, being called every name under the sun. Was hit with anything that was handy at the time, if, nothing was around to hit with, then got kicked with the foot or knuckles on the head or slap across the face. Broom handle, hair brush anything. So I’m on my 4th marriage, (No physical abuse). Some days I feel like I am going crazy. About 3 months ago, I figured out I’m not CRAZY, I have PTSD.

  17. Ayesha says:

    I endured abuse and neglect my entire childhood, and followed it up with an abusive husband, whom I divorced. Unfortunately, some guy I met stalked me to another state, raped me, kept me hostage basically for 3 months in a trailer with no running water or food while he used meth and got blind-drunk every night. When I escaped, I was pregnant, and I was completely nonverbal for 3 more months while I waited to give birth in a domestic violence shelter. I lost everything, even the support of “family” – because – of COURSE this had to be some failing of my own. I got help and learned exactly how broken I was. Ten years of peace and safety now, my daughter and I are thriving… But even now, the nightmares, quick-to-startle reflexes, and hypervigilance are overbearing. I wake up every 15 minutes to make sure I’m safe. I have developed a cognitive disorder (unspecified) causing memory issues and confusion on a daily basis. I have most definitely come a long way, but the damage done to my brain was so extensive and long-lasting that I have come to accept “this” as my new “normal”.

    • You are a very strong woman. Please do not listen to anyone who says otherwise. I am so sorry that you have been through so much!

      • Ayesha says:

        Thank you very much! You are totally right – I no longer listen to those people who think “it’s no big deal” and that I should have long ago “gotten over it”. I have gone no contact with my family, and am much better off now!

  18. Donna says:

    Just try not to think about it. You will be fine.
    ;-(

  19. Donna says:

    Thats what i hear most.
    ;-(

  20. Mark says:

    I hate when I hear “How did YOU get PTSD”.

  21. Daydreams says:

    Believe it or not I actually had someone laugh when I told them I was diagnosed with it. That, all by itself, hurt quite a bit.
    They took an attitude like I was just being a “drama queen” and only men at war suffered this illness.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  22. Anne Skyvington says:

    I experienced mental illness for a great part of my life, from trauma in childhood. So even though mine didn’t result in PTSD, I understand exactly what you’re saying, and how hard it must be for you.

  23. They tell you to just get over it and move one you cant stay stuck in the past. It is not like I want to stay stuck in the past

  24. Rachel says:

    This is what my so called boyfriend said to me recently.

    You’ve told me a little about your PTSD. Thank you. I imagine that it must have been difficult to talk about and I appreciate the trust. I really do. I have done some reading in the past, and since, and for what it’s worth, without diminishing the importance of the condition, it doesn’t bother me. Just wanted you to know that. Hope you don’t mind.

    IT DOESNT BOTHER ME…. WTF????

  25. Leanne says:

    I was physically and emotionally abused by my partner for over 12 months until I finally found the courage to have him arrested. An intervention order was put in place and he isn’t allowed any form of contact or to be within 100 metres of myself or my home. I know I should feel safe, and that I can finally move on with my life, but I’m still struggling with feeling ‘normal’ again.

    When I explained to a friend that I had been diagnosed with PTSD he said, “That can’t be right, only soldiers get that.” I’ve also been told that it’s all in my head, it’s in the past and that I should be over it by now. I’ve been asked, “Are you schizophrenic? Are you bipolar?”. All of these comments and questions just makes me feel weak that I can’t control my reactions to different situations. I’m tired of being told to move on and to just be happy. If only it were that simple.

  26. debbie says:

    I’ve had the ‘take your pills’ one… Also ‘if you’d lost a leg I might believe you’. ‘How can you just forget’ (relating to short term memory problems).
    And the doozie… When telling somebody who asked about what caused my PTSD, ‘is that a real accident, or just another one you imagined’. I actually had to go and check the news reports to convince myself I wasn’t just potty on that one…

  27. Carson says:

    ‘Come on, you know you’re fine ‘, in a very sarcastic tone. The tone matters just as much as the words. If someone who’s just seen you come out of a flashback or woken you from a night terror, the last thing you need is for that person to be sarcastic with you. It feels like the experience is not being taken as enduring a trauma, again! It’s invalidating.

  28. janca says:

    I get a reaction whenever I hear the quote “You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how you react” coupled with “how you react is what matters”. Who would choose to have PTSD? this quote sounds nice on the outside, but is very very shaming to those who respond to trauma in ways they can’t control.

  29. Drexie Maxx says:

    “Please, you’re troubles were just a phase. Give it up already and move on to someone else”. You can’t just push away things that will scar you for life. Like for example, I was taken away from someone I found theraputic and someone put a restraining order on me just because I relied on this person. Sure, to some people, that doesn’t sound so bad, but to me, it did leave something that I will never be able to forget about.

  30. Amanda M says:

    This list is very helpful thank you. I thought after forgiving one person out of several that things would get better but I didn’t realize that after I had unknowingly pushed things down inside trying to move on. Things didn’t just “get better” or “go away” and over a decade has passed and I’m back at square one again (granted I have NOT woken up screaming every night since 2006 however I DID have a full blown panic attack (last one was 2006 as well) after I was triggered recently in front of family)…And now I have to figure out how to cope AGAIN while my life has moved into marriage and children. Most trauma has been surpressed this entire time and My husband has no clue how to talk to me about any of this and I feel bad about that. He says such insensitive things because he’s generally speculating and has no idea because I have had it “under control” and been extremely vague over the years. This morning I suggested he google ways to be sensitive and what not to ask/state because I can only deal with positivity and sensitivity right now. I hope I find Peace ✌🏻.

    • I’m so glad that you found this helpful. Yes, it is hard when forgiving does not finish the pain and fear. I hope that your husband can come to better understand and care for you. I truly believe that you can find peace!

  31. Mark says:

    If you let this get to you I will leave.

  32. Dave says:

    One painfull comment:It didn’t happen.

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