General Rule: If you would not say it to someone who was paralyzed in a car accident, about their paralyzation or any of the complications that go with it, don’t say it to someone who has PTSD (or someone who’s suffered a traumatic event, or who’s lost a spouse or child or parent or sibling, or – well, anyone suffering).
- “That was a long time ago. You should be __________ (insert verb, like walking) by now.”
- “That accident is in the past. You need to just let it go and __________ (insert verb or verb phrase, like move on, or walk ….).
- “Just get over it.”
- “You need to just be thankful for _________________ .”
- “I (insert event, like “had a car accident) and it didn’t paralyze me.” (Just. don’t. even.)
You are not in their shoes, number one. Everyone’s journey is different.
Two: If you have been in their shoes and did not end up with PTSD, thank your lucky stars instead of suggesting the person is in some way defective, and/or not trying to heal. There are many complex reasons why some people end up with PTSD and some don’t, but absolutely NONE of them have to do with choice, or strength. Trust me when I say that no one wants the person to heal more than the one who suffers in this way.
Three: PTSD actually changes the structure and function of the brain. So, for the individual suffering with it, the activating event(s) are not actually in the past. In their conscious mind, sure, but it’s the limbic system that’s in charge of those files and the limbic system did not get the memo. There is a complicated set of chemical happenings and other reactions that hijack the brain and the rest of the body – resulting in anxiety, panic, insomnia, depression, and other things that may not make sense to you at face value. Try to keep in mind that it not making sense to you does not mean it’s not valid.
Four: Triggers are very real. I don’t have the time or bandwidth to go into this here right now, but please understand that “trigger” is not just and should not be used as a trendy buzz word. To the PTSD brain, a trigger is that big red button in the end-of-the-world movie scenario that gets pushed with significant consequences. This is not a valid comparison, but think of emotional triggers like peanut allergies – the really, really bad ones. You may not have a peanut allergy and you may eat a jar of peanut butter a day – but to the person with the severe allergy, just peanut butter on your breath in the same room can land them in the ER.
So where does that leave you?
Be kind (and possibly silent, lol). Have compassion. Validate, don’t minimize. Who are you to minimize someone else’s experience or pain or journey?
Don’t feel like you have to know what to say. I think that’s where the worst mistakes get made, and the most distasteful platitudes and timing take place. It’s okay and even welcome for you to say “I don’t know what to say.” And instead of telling a person why you believe they struggle, or why they haven’t healed yet, etc., ask an open-ended question instead, like “What’s it like to be you?”
Actually, that question is a good one for any situation in which you are faced with someone different than you or whom you do not understand – their situation, response, views, choices, struggles – whatever sets you apart. Instead of judging or feeling compelled to educate them, seek to understand them.
We are, most of us in this crazy world, just doing the best that we are able. Most of us don’t need any help being hard on ourselves, we just need true support while we walk our own unique path.