A Guide to PTSD Recovery for Veterans and Their Loved Ones

For military veterans who have experienced the horrors of war or other disturbing incidents during training or deployment, trauma can endure long after coming back home. This trauma may cause long-lasting psychological scars, deeply affecting veterans’ mental health and well-being. In some cases, the trauma results in a chronic mental health condition: post-traumatic stress disorder […]

Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC By Greg Lozano, LPC

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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For military veterans who have experienced the horrors of war or other disturbing incidents during training or deployment, trauma can endure long after coming back home. This trauma may cause long-lasting psychological scars, deeply affecting veterans’ mental health and well-being. In some cases, the trauma results in a chronic mental health condition: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, around seven percent of veterans have PTSD at some point in their lives. It’s estimated that veterans who were deployed are three times more likely to develop PTSD than those who were not. 

It can be very difficult to navigate civilian life after military service, even more so when PTSD is a part of the equation. Coping with the aftermath of trauma is challenging not only for veterans themselves but also for their loved ones.

If you are personally dealing with PTSD, or if you’re trying to help a loved one with PTSD, here are some therapist-backed tips to help you through.

Tips for Veterans with PTSD

There are many strategies that veterans with PTSD can implement to improve their mental health, on top of therapy for PTSD. Everyone’s different, so it’s important to experiment, be open to trying new things, and see what works for you.

1. Lean on your support system

Outside of PTSD therapy, one of the most helpful things you can do is identify your support system and keep that line of communication open, says Michael Dutko, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy. Determine who you feel most safe opening up to, whether that’s your romantic partner, family members, or best friends. Let them know when you’re struggling and seek out what you need, whether that’s a shoulder to cry on, someone to vent to, or a buddy to make you laugh and completely take your mind off of things.

When you’re dealing with PTSD, you might think it’s easier and better to hold in how you’re feeling, but this will only hurt you. It may be difficult at first to get truly vulnerable and open up, but it’s absolutely worth it. In fact, research has found that strong social support is linked to less severe PTSD symptoms. 

2. Avoid substance use

When you’re dealing with difficult feelings that you don’t want to feel, it might be tempting to go to measures to not feel. “Avoid drowning your feelings in alcohol or other substances just to numb them away,” says Alicia Ellis, a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner with Grow Therapy.

While substances might provide temporary relief, they often exacerbate the long-term effects of trauma and complicate the healing process. Since drugs and alcohol enable avoidance, substance use can ultimately worsen PTSD symptoms and make them last longer.

Not to mention, the habit can develop into a substance use disorder, which commonly co-occurs alongside PTSD and can lead to its own slew of problems. 

3. Practice self-care

Determine what types of things are self-care for you, Dutko recommends. This looks different for everybody. “Ask yourself, if I’m having a bad day or if I’m having a stressful day, what are the little things that I know that are gonna relax me or make me feel better?” he says.

Not sure what works for you? Here are some self-care ideas:

Another important part of self-care is reducing life stressors, says Hieu Tran, a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner with Grow Therapy. While you can’t fully escape stress in your life, you can take steps to reduce the stress you face. For example, Tran says it’s important to recognize when you need to take a vacation or even just a mental health day off from work. Alternatively, if your family life is the biggest stressor, Tran suggests setting boundaries and communicating with them when you need to take a step back or when you need help. 

4. Find the right therapist

PTSD therapy is crucial for recovery from PTSD. However, just as important as going to therapy is finding the therapist who is right for you.

“When looking for a therapist, finding someone to open up to is hard for veterans, as they may feel like no one can understand because they were not there,” says Ellis. “You will want to find someone that you feel comfortable talking to, and that has no judgment.”

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There are many qualified licensed therapists out there, but it’s so important to feel like you can truly communicate openly with them.

“Ultimately, it comes down to being able to feel connected to that counselor and comfortable opening up to them,” says Dutko. The more open and comfortable you are with your therapist, the more they will be able to help. 

Furthermore, it’s up to you whether you want your PTSD therapy to be with a therapist who specializes in veterans or with someone who just specializes in PTSD in general, Dutko says. Again, it all comes down to rapport and comfort. 

5. Find the right PTSD therapy modality for you

Not all therapy modalities are created equal when it comes to treating specific conditions. PTSD is a unique diagnosis that requires trauma-focused treatment. 

Three commonly used types of PTSD therapy include:

Therapy isn’t one size fits all, so it may take some trial and error to see what therapy modality or combination of therapies works best for you. Additionally, depending on the individual, your therapist or psychiatrist might recommend psychiatric medication as a part of your treatment plan. 

6. Be Patient

PTSD therapy doesn’t work overnight. Trauma is difficult to cope with, and the process of healing and recovery can be a gradual one. “Mental health is never linear. It’s always up and down. It’s a slow process, but in the end, it will be worth it,” says Tran.

Progress may come in small baby steps, and setbacks are a natural part of the journey. Be self-aware and mindful of ups-and-downs, but keep your eye on the light at the end of the tunnel, Tran says.

Be patient and trust the process. Feel free to communicate with your therapist if you feel like you aren’t progressing the way you’d hoped. 

7. Consider joining a support group

On top of social support from people in your close circle and professional PTSD therapy, you may also want to consider joining a peer support group for veterans with PTSD. Tran says finding a support group of people who have gone through the same thing as you can be very beneficial, offering a chance to talk about trauma, losses, the transition from military to civilian life, and more.

By sharing your own story and hearing other peoples’ stories, you’ll feel less alone in your struggles. You might even gain some new perspectives and friendships.

Tips for Loved Ones of Veterans with PTSD

Supporting a veteran with PTSD can be challenging, but your support can truly make a world of difference. It’s extremely important for veterans with PTSD to know that they are not alone and they have people who care for them. 

1. Educate yourself

Especially if you aren’t familiar with PTSD, it’s important to do your research. Learn about PTSD to gain some insight into what your loved one is experiencing. The more you understand the condition, the more equipped you’ll be to help support them. You won’t be able to know exactly how they feel, but you will have a better idea of the mechanisms behind PTSD, its symptoms, and how it can impact someone’s life.

A great starting point is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD website. Here, you’ll find plenty of medically sound information about the condition.

2. Show your support, but don’t rush them

“Being present in your loved one’s life is extremely helpful in making them feel safe in their current environment,” says Ellis. Make sure your loved one knows you’re here to support them however you can. However, at the same time, you don’t want to rush them or be pushy to open up. 

Don’t pressure them into talking. They will in their own time,” Ellis adds. “Sometimes just listening to them and not asking questions is more helpful than you might think.”

3. Communication, patience, and empathy are key

Dutko says he always tells families of veterans that communication, patience, and empathy are three of the most important things when dealing with these situations. Sympathy involves feeling sorry for someone’s pain and expressing your condolences. But empathy goes a step further. It involves genuinely putting yourself in another person’s shoes, trying to understand how they’re feeling, and then offering support. 

You can show your support in simple ways, even just by saying something like, “I’m here if you need anything” or “Let me know if you need to talk.” This helps convey patience, too.

“Communication is a roller coaster,” Dutko says. “It can be a beautiful thing and a frustrating thing all at once – and that’s completely normal.” 

Essentially, everything isn’t always going to be smooth sailing. There will be times when your loved one wants more space, when they aren’t ready to open up yet, or when they’re feeling triggered. Just have patience and empathy along the way.

4. Be conscious of potential triggers

Especially when veterans first come home, they may be sensitive to external stimuli. “Be aware of the surroundings and know that sometimes loud noises or screams can trigger someone,”  Ellis says. “Keep surroundings as calm as possible, but normal in the same sense.” 

By doing this, you can contribute to a sense of safety and stability, which is essential for veterans with PTSD. However, you aren’t a mind reader, so don’t hesitate to communicate directly with your loved one and ask what you can help with when it comes to this.

5. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too

It’s just as important to practice self-care and take care of your own wellbeing while you’re helping a loved one with PTSD, Dutko says. Give yourself permission to do things for yourself and to have fun. You can’t pour from an empty cup. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to effectively take care of others without burning out. 

6. Help them get help

If you suspect your loved one has PTSD, but they aren’t getting treatment for it, you may want to gently and compassionately encourage them to seek professional PTSD therapy.

Approach the conversation with empathy and understanding. Remind them that you love them and care for them. Express your concern for their well-being and offer your support in finding the right therapist or researching different types of PTSD therapy. You can even offer to accompany them to the first session if they’d like.

Grow Therapy can help you find a trauma-informed therapist who meets your or your loved one’s needs and accepts insurance. Browse online and in-person therapists who specialize in trauma now. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Grow Therapy therapist Gregorio (Greg) Lozano III LPC Greg Lozano, LPC

Greg Lozano is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in working with individuals with severe mental illnesses such as depressive, bipolar, schizophrenia, and substance abuse conditions.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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