When a person you love is going through a hard time. You can see that they are suffering, yet their response can be confusing when you reach out and they reject your support. It’s a helpless feeling, heartbreaking, and may even be a frustrating feeling which can even lead to potential danger in certain circumstances. Their denial of accepting your care and concern for them seems irrational from your perspective, especially when they are clearly suffering.
When someone has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) it is common to be pushed away and rejected for trying to help or connect with them. It can be confusing and it’s hard not to take the rejection personally. It’s hard to not feel like you’ve said or have done something wrong. However, the more you learn about trauma and the way the body experiences it, stores it, and even continues to protect it from future trauma, you will see it makes perfect sense.
Types of Trauma
Big “T” Traumas and Little “t” Traumas
When it comes to trauma there are two types. The Big “T” traumas are a singular traumatic events. It could’ve happened in the present or past. Then there are the Little “t” traumas, which are several less striking events.
Between both of these traumas, the link between both is something frightening happened and the person felt very alone in dealing with it and/or with it. Alone doesn’t mean actually physically alone, it can also mean that you just felt alone psychologically. Which makes the victim feel it is a threat to survival, on their own.
When the body stores an experience as a threat to survival it is placed within the limbic system, as opposed to long-term memory. With proper support, both traumas can move from the limbic system to long-term memory. Proper support would be emotional support, compassion, and empathy, along with the opportunity to process the traumatic event itself.
Though if the trauma stays in the limbic system then the past experience can be set off or “triggered.” Even if the experience was from months, years, or however long ago. It can be something small as a sound or smell even. This will make the victim feel like the trauma is happening all over again when in reality it is not. There is a lot more to the criteria in diagnosing PTSD, however, this is a simplified basic understanding in generic form.
PTSD Alive In The Body For Years After Traumatic Events
Our ‘danger detection system,’ which is also called our autonomic nervous system is the reason why someone with PTSD can get triggered months or years later. Your autonomic nervous system can pick up on perceived threats and gives your body cues that something dangerous is about to happen. This way your body is more prepared to react. Whether that reaction is to fight, run, or freeze in an attempt to survive. With some people, the autonomic system can get stuck into the fight/run/freeze mode in an attempt to survive. The frozen mode is considered immobilization which is a dorsal vagal response within the parasympathetic nervous system.
How to Support Someone with PTSD Who Pushes Away
- Communicating Your Support
When they are in a sympathetic nervous system state and they are angry, confrontational, or wanting to flee from you. You must understand this state does not allow them to just calm down. It is important for them to be seen and acknowledged at this time. They are in fact experiencing something that is upsetting and frightening to them. Letting them know you’re there for them and by their side can be very helpful.
- Using Non-Judgmental Language
It’s important to respond with kindness if they continue to push you away. Do your best to do so without judgment. Continue to show them that you do care for them and love them. Allow them to see you want them to know they are not alone and you can see they are struggling right now. If they can be around you at this moment in time, it would be most helpful. It would help ground them, and being that you have a non-judgemental stance it can also help reassure them that they are safe, loved, and even protected.
Here are some specific language and phrases you can try:
- “I can see you are having a difficult time. I want to be there for you. I very much love you and care for you, even when you are upset. I can stay with you if you want me to.”
- “I understand it is difficult for you to talk right now. I will understand if you need time for us to talk later. My feelings will not be hurt. Just let me know when it will be a good time for us to talk. If you don’t mind, I’ll check in with you tomorrow or earlier if I don’t hear from you. What would be a good time?”
- “I know you sometimes get overwhelmed and angry. Which means you need alone time. I don’t take it personally. I look forward to talking to you when you are ready to talk. If you rather text instead, we can text. Just know, I am here for you when you feel better.”
When a person comes out of the fight/flight or freezes mode, which can potentially be hours or even a few days, you may want to have a conversation with them. When conversing with them make sure you are coming from a non-judgmental place and you show compassion. You may want to suggest they seek help from trauma-informed mental health professionals. Especially, if they continuously keep experiencing being stuck into fight/flight or freeze modes.
Seeing Through Their Eyes, and Not Only Yours
It can be very hard when dealing with a person you care for and they are not being very caring toward you. Especially when they are raising their voice, not looking at you, demanding you to leave them alone, overflowing with a jumble of words in addition to. It’s difficult to maintain empathy when you feel attacked and rejected, especially by the person you care for and possibly even love.
Though, in the midst of it all, try to take a moment to consider what they are going through instead of focusing on your reaction to being pushed away. Your selflessness and empathy can help them emerge from their fight/flight and freeze state. You can do so by giving non-verbal support, and compassionate cues like a gentle smile, which can send positive signals to their nervous system. Those signals help reinforce that you’re not a threat.
When a person can see, feel, hear, and sense your genuine empathy their nervous system begins to relax. If at first, they do not initially respond, try again repeatedly if needed. Sometimes the person suffering from PTSD when on alert might feel like the empathy isn’t real, but instead a trick for them to just let their guard down, at first.
At Harmony Recovery Center we have family counseling available to help you and your loved one suffering from PTSD to continue to strengthen your relationship. As well as work on ways to help support one another. Contact us to learn more about how our family counseling therapy can be beneficial for your family.