Imagine you are the survivor of a horrible car crash. One day, while you’re walking down the street, you hear a car horn followed by a screeching noise. Before you get a chance to look around and figure out what happened, you feel a sudden rush of adrenaline. Fear paralyzes you from head to toe, and your mind fills up with images of the accident in which you were involved not long ago. It may look like you’re overreacting from the outside, but from the inside, everything feels so ‘real’ and overwhelming. And so, you sit there shaking and waiting for something horrible to happen.
For someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the world no longer looks like a place worth exploring but rather a minefield where every step presents a risk.
As you can probably imagine, being hypervigilant and ‘on edge’ most of the day is exhausting. In time, and without proper help, you will eventually shut down because you don’t feel like there’s someone who can truly understand what you’re going through.
But part of the reason people who’ve been through traumatic events resort to social isolation is that society often fails to provide what people living with PTSD genuinely need.
And it’s not out of ignorance or ill-intention, not always, but merely a lack of understanding of the difficulties associated with this condition. This manifests in the public services offered to them, the reactions of their loves to their condition, and even in the way those around them communicate with them.
So, here is a list of things you SHOULDN’T say to someone with PTSD:
1. “You’ll get over it”
Whether someone is dealing with depression, burnout, or PTSD, telling them to simply “Get over it” will trivialize the severity of their condition and make them feel like they’re not strong enough.
Imagine you are dealing with something so painful that it almost seems unsolvable. At the same time, you keep hearing that it’s nothing and you should get over it. At some point, you begin to feel like you are the problem; you are the one who doesn’t have what it takes to overcome your condition.
2. “You’re just a bit shocked; that’s all”
A traumatic event can send shockwaves for months (even years) after the initial impact.
It’s like throwing a rock into a pond. Even though the waves are not as ‘loud’ as the initial splash, they’re still strong enough to disturb the surface of the water.
But the worst part is that if you find yourself in a triggering situation, your mind will (emotionally) reenact the trauma, which can be shocking enough to make you avoid specific contexts or experience intense anxiety if you have nowhere to run.
Long story short, people with PTSD are not “just a bit shocked.”
3. “I’m no expert, but I think you should…”
Nobody, regardless of the problems they are dealing with, wants to hear unsolicited advice. In fact, there’s a good chance that someone who’s going through a rough patch might have already tried what you’re about to suggest.
For people with PTSD, an empathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on is significantly more valuable than any piece of ‘expert’ advice you might have picked off the Internet.
Just stop at “I’m no expert” because you’re definitely not. All you need to be is the person who can listen and understand.
4. “Maybe you need to do more and complain less”
Once again, we have a perfect example of an invalidating response resulting from a lack of empathy and understanding.
When you’re dealing with something as emotionally draining as PTSD, there’s little energy left for anything else. It’s not that you don’t want to do more; it’s just that every attempt to get past your traumatic experience feels like a herculean task.
Patience is a crucial factor during the recovery process, and just because someone is complaining doesn’t mean they don’t actively work on their problem.
5. “It’s not that bad”
Sometimes, people think that making a problem seem less severe will somehow take the burden off the sufferer’s shoulders, thus speeding recovery.
Although the intention is good, playing down the severity of the problem can backfire horribly. More specifically, you risk becoming yet another person who doesn’t understand the pain and difficulties associated with PTSD.
If you want to provide support to someone who’s been through a traumatic event, don’t evaluate the situation based on your criteria.
Listen, understand, and try to see the pain through his/her eyes.
6. “Others have it worse”
Comparing one sufferer to another can sometimes be useful as it sheds new light on the situation. The fact that life could have been far worse represents a glimmer of hope that paves the way for a better future.
But this perspective only works when the sufferer has already overcome helplessness and is making real steps towards recovery.
Otherwise, it’s just another trigger for shame and guilt.
7. “Stop making a big fuss about it”
This reply screams frustration right off the bat.
It’s the kind of thing that tends to slip out of your mouth when, for some reason, you’re feeling emotionally unavailable, or perhaps you’ve grown tired of hearing the same complaints over and over again.
If you don’t feel emotionally available, perhaps it would be wiser to take a step back for a moment instead of venting your frustration to someone who’s already in a dark place.
People with PTSD make a big fuss about it because the pain and anxiety can be truly unbearable at times.
8. “I have a friend who’s been through a similar situation, and he got over it”
Just like “Others have it worse,” telling someone with PTSD that they’ll get over it simply because you’ve seen others recovering from the same condition is a faulty comparison.
For starters, one person’s trauma is hardly comparable to another’s. People’s reaction to traumatic events varies depending on their personality, emotional resilience, coping mechanisms, and social support system.
9. “You’re completely irrational”
Given that the underlying emotions people with PTSD experience most of the time are fear and anticipatory anxiety, it’s no surprise that rational arguments prove entirely ineffective.
Additionally, telling people that they’re irrational will definitely not make them adopt a rational perspective. It will only deepen their sense of worthlessness and helplessness.
Often, a simple gesture of, “Help me understand why this situation is difficult for you” is far more helpful than saying, “Let’s look at your problem from a rational standpoint.”
10. “You have to face your fears”
Facing your fears or, as experts call it, exposure therapy is one of the most effective strategies in dealing with PTSD and other anxiety disorders.
Current evidence suggests that both intensive prolonged exposure and virtual-reality augmented exposure can help individuals overcome traumatic experiences.
But this process should only take place under the guidance and supervision of a licensed counselor or therapist.
For people with PTSD, facing their fears can be a huge endeavor requiring patience and careful planning.
11. “You must be really sensitive”
Given that people living with PTSD avoid contexts that could trigger them or behave ‘strangely’ when confronted with a situation that reminds them of their traumatic experience, it’s easy to label them as sensitive.
But this sensitivity isn’t a feature of their identity but a coping mechanism that shields them from further pain and suffering.
Remember that some of them are battle-hardened veterans who could do things that most of us wouldn’t even have the courage to try.
12. “Loosen up a bit; you’re too uptight”
Telling someone with PTSD to loosen up is like telling someone with depression to smile more often.
The reason why people who’ve been through traumatic events seem uptight is that they shield themselves from anything that might trigger that painful memory.
For them, loosening up means letting their guard down, something for which they might not feel ready yet.
13. “Are you a war veteran?”
Given that a significant proportion of people who struggle with PTSD are soldiers and war veterans, we can understand why this stereotype has taken root.
But PTSD can result from a wide range of traumatic events. From emotional and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and severe illness to car accidents, the death of a loved one, and natural disasters, any event that shakes you to the core can trigger the onset of PTSD.
The best thing you can do is ask before making any assumptions that could put the other person in an awkward position.
14. “Leave the past behind”
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for the human mind to leave the past behind, especially when the past holds something that has shaken the very core of your personality.
When something traumatic happens, the brain registers the event to prevent it from happening again. That’s why some memories will stick and remain with us forever.
In short, the past isn’t something that we should forget or put behind, but understand, accept and integrate into our experience.
15. “Focus on the Positive”
We know that humans possess a diverse spectrum of emotions, some being pleasant, others less so. But each emotional experience has a purpose and a valuable message that we need to hear.
If we choose to focus on “positive vibes only” (and encourage others to do the same), all we are doing is running away from ourselves.
Unpleasant emotions are part of who we are just as much as pleasant ones are.
16. “Let’s talk about something else”
Although being close to people who’ve experienced a tragedy may feel ‘heavy’ at times, it’s vital to create a space where they can unburden their soul.
As long as ‘the wound is still fresh,’ trying to change the subject to something less tragic in hopes of lifting their mood will only result in disappointment.
There’s a good chance you’ll make them feel like a burden.
17. “Why didn’t you say anything at that time?”
Trauma survivors rarely talk about what they’ve been through, especially immediately after the event. It is usually when people notice changes in their behavior that they begin to share their struggles.
On top of that, it’s challenging to be open about something as painful as sexual abuse or domestic violence. Especially when you know that people might not understand what you’re going through, and the authorities might not always have the power to provide proper assistance.
18. “Let’s do something fun”
When you’re having a hard time adjusting to everyday life, fun is the last thing on your mind.
Even if you try to do something to take your mind off the problems you face, there’s always that profound sense of imminent threat that’s keeping you from enjoying a fun activity.
Instead of suggesting something fun, try to create a safe space where they can experience a sense of comfort and calm.
19. “Didn’t this happen a long time ago?”
Asking this question is like saying, “You should have been over it by now.”
It’s definitely something you don’t want to say to someone who’s already having a hard time going about his/her daily life.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it takes 6 to 12 weeks of psychotherapy for someone with PTSD to achieve recovery. But keep in mind this is just a rough estimate.
20. “It will only get better and better from now on”
As an outside observer, it’s easy to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But when you’re dealing with something as debilitating as PTSD, all you can see are miles and miles of tunnel.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a complicated condition with numerous emotional, psychological, and behavioral factors that affect one’s ability to perceive a better future. So instead of desperately pointing towards the light, try helping those suffering from PTSD navigate through the tunnel until they find their own way out.
For tips on what you should do, check out our article Supporting Someone with PTSD.
Written by Alexander Draghici, MS, LCPC
In collaboration with E-Counseling.com