Coping with PTSD and Recommended Lifestyle Changes for PTSD Patients
By: the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Coping with PTSD
Because PTSD symptoms seldom disappear completely, it is usually a continuing
challenge for survivors of trauma to cope with PTSD symptoms and the problems
they cause. Survivors often learn through treatment how to cope more
Recovery from PTSD is an ongoing, daily, gradual process. It doesn't happen
through sudden insight or "cure." Healing doesn't mean that a survivor will
forget war experiences or have no emotional pain when remembering them. Some
level of continuing reaction to memories is normal and reflects a normal body
and mind. Recovery may lead to fewer reactions and reactions that are less
intense. It may also lead to a greater ability to manage trauma-related emotions
and to greater confidence in one's ability to cope.
When a trauma survivor takes direct action to cope with problems, he or she
often gains a sense of personal power and control. Active coping means
recognizing and accepting the impact of traumatic experiences and then taking
concrete action to improve things.
Positive coping actions are those that help to reduce anxiety and
lessen other distressing reactions. Positive coping actions also improve the
situation in a way that does not harm the survivor further and in a way that
lasts into the future. Positive coping methods include:
Learning about trauma and PTSD-It is useful for trauma survivors to
learn more about PTSD and how it affects them. By learning that PTSD is common
and that their problems are shared by hundreds of thousands of others, survivors
recognize that they are not alone, weak, or crazy. When a survivor seeks
treatment and learns to recognize and understand what upsets him or her, he or
she is in a better position to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.
Talking to another person for support-When survivors are able to talk
about their problems with others, something helpful often results. Of course,
survivors must choose their support people carefully and clearly ask for what
they need. With support from others, survivors may feel less alone, feel
supported or understood, or receive concrete help with a problem situation.
Often, it is best to talk to professional counselors about issues related to the
traumatic experience itself; they are more likely than friends or family to
understand trauma and its effects. It is also helpful to seek support from a
support group. Being in a group with others who have PTSD may help reduce one's
sense of isolation, rebuild trust in others, and provide an important
opportunity to contribute to the recovery of other survivors of trauma.
Talking to your doctor about trauma and PTSD-Part of taking care of
yourself means mobilizing the helping resources around you. Your doctor can take
care of your physical health better if he or she knows about your PTSD, and
doctors can often refer you to more specialized and expert help.
Practicing relaxation methods-These can include muscular relaxation
exercises, breathing exercises, meditation, swimming, stretching, yoga, prayer,
listening to quiet music, spending time in nature, and so on. While relaxation
techniques can be helpful, they can sometimes increase distress by focusing
attention on disturbing physical sensations or by reducing contact with the
external environment. Be aware that while uncomfortable physical sensations may
become more apparent when you are relaxed, in the long run, continuing with
relaxation in a way that is tolerable (i.e., interspersed with music, walking,
or other activities) helps reduce negative reactions to thoughts, feelings, and
Increasing positive distracting activities-Positive recreational or
work activities help distract a person from his or her memories and reactions.
Artistic endeavors have also been a way for many trauma survivors to express
their feelings in a positive, creative way. This can improve your mood, limit
the harm caused by PTSD, and help you rebuild your life. It is important to
emphasize that distraction alone is unlikely to facilitate recovery; active,
direct coping with traumatic events and their impact is also important.
Calling a counselor for help-Sometimes PTSD symptoms worsen and
ordinary efforts at coping don't seem to work. Survivors may feel fearful or
depressed. At these times, it is important to reach out and telephone a
counselor, who can help turn things around.
Taking prescribed medications to tackle PTSD-One tool that many with
PTSD have found helpful is medication treatment. By taking medications, some
survivors of trauma are able to improve their sleep, anxiety, irritability,
anger, and urges to drink or use drugs.
Negative coping actions help to perpetuate problems. They may reduce
distress immediately but short-circuit more permanent change. Some actions that
may be immediately effective may also cause later problems, like smoking or drug
use. These habits can become difficult to change. Negative coping methods can
include isolation, use of drugs or alcohol, workaholism, violent behavior, angry
intimidation of others, unhealthy eating, and different types of
self-destructive behavior (e.g., attempting suicide). Before learning more
effective and healthy coping methods, most people with PTSD try to cope with
their distress and other reactions in ways that lead to more problems. The
following are negative coping actions:
Use of alcohol or drugs-This may help wash away memories, increase
social confidence, or induce sleep, but it causes more problems than it cures.
Using alcohol or drugs can create a dependence on alcohol, harm one's judgment,
harm one's mental abilities, cause problems in relationships with family and
friends, and sometimes place a person at risk for suicide, violence, or
Social isolation-By reducing contact with the outside world, a trauma
survivor may avoid many situations that cause him or her to feel afraid,
irritable, or angry. However, isolation will also cause major problems. It will
result in the loss of social support, friendships, and intimacy. It may breed
further depression and fear. Less participation in positive activities leads to
fewer opportunities for positive emotions and achievements.
Anger-Like isolation, anger can get rid of many upsetting situations
by keeping people away. However, it also keeps away positive connections and
help, and it can gradually drive away the important people in a person's life.
It may lead to job problems, marital or relationship problems, and the loss of
Continuous avoidance-If you avoid thinking about the trauma or if you
avoid seeking help, you may keep distress at bay, but this behavior also
prevents you from making progress in how you cope with trauma and its
Recommended Lifestyle Changes – Taking Control
Those with PTSD need to take active steps to deal with their PTSD symptoms.
Often, these steps involve making a series of thoughtful changes in one's
lifestyle to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. Positive lifestyle
Calling about treatment and joining a PTSD support group-It may be
difficult to take the first step and join a PTSD treatment group. Survivors say
to themselves, "What will happen there? Nobody can help me anyway." In addition,
people with PTSD find it hard to meet new people and trust them enough to open
up. However, it can also be a great relief to feel that you have taken positive
action. You may also be able to eventually develop a friendship with another
Increasing contact with other survivors of trauma-Other survivors of
trauma are probably the best source of understanding and support. By joining a
survivors organization (e.g., veterans may want to join a veteran's
organization) or by otherwise increasing contact with other survivors, it is
possible to reverse the process of isolation and distrust of others.
Reinvesting in personal relationships with family and friends-Most
survivors of trauma have some kind of a relationship with a son or daughter, a
wife or partner, or an old friend or work acquaintance. If you make the effort
to reestablish or increase contact with that person, it can help you reconnect
Changing neighborhoods-Survivors with PTSD usually feel that the world
is a very dangerous place and that it is likely that they will be harmed again.
It is not a good idea for people with PTSD to live in a high-crime area because
it only makes those feelings worse and confirms their beliefs. If it is possible
to move to a safer neighborhood, it is likely that fewer things will set off
traumatic memories. This will allow the person to reconsider his or her personal
beliefs about danger.
Refraining from alcohol and drug abuse-Many trauma survivors turn to
alcohol and drugs to help them cope with PTSD. Although these substances may
distract a person from his or her painful feelings and, therefore, may appear to
help deal with symptoms, relying on alcohol and drugs always makes things worse
in the end. These substances often hinder PTSD treatment and recovery. Rather
than trying to beat an addiction by yourself, it is often easier to deal with
addictions by joining a treatment program where you can be around others who are
working on similar issues.
Starting an exercise program-It is important to see a doctor before
starting to exercise. However, if the physician gives the OK, exercise in
moderation can benefit those with PTSD. Walking, jogging, swimming, weight
lifting, and other forms of exercise may reduce physical tension. They may
distract the person from painful memories or worries and give him or her a break
from difficult emotions. Perhaps most important, exercise can improve
self-esteem and create feelings of personal control.
Starting to volunteer in the community-It is important to feel as
though you are contributing to your community. When you are not working, you may
not feel you have anything to offer others. One way survivors can reconnect with
their communities is to volunteer. You can help with youth programs, medical
services, literacy programs, community sporting activities, etc.
By Joe Ruzek, Ph.D.