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Moving Past the Past: How to Support People with PTSD

A woman kneeling to assist a man, depicted in silhouette against a light background

Last year, Filipino artist Kat Langomez struggled for an entire week because she did something that normally brings her comfort.

She watched anime, an art form that has long been of interest to her. Based in the Philippines–where Japanese cartoons used to dominate the afterschool hours of public television–she was among the many who grew up with the visually dramatic heroes of this genre, they of typical exaggerated features and mutable physiques. And now that she’s an adult, they influence her work as Kira Kira Kat, an entertainer whose best foot forward steps into the shoes of a Vtuber, a cosplayer, a performer and a voice actor. Sometime in May 2023, however, at least one anime series had a different effect on her.

She was watching “Oshi no Ko,” an adaptation of the manga about pop idols and the demanding entertainment industry of Japan. On episode six, Akane—a hardworking stage actress—figured in a mishap that drew the ire of the ruthless and the careless that populate the internet. Her reputation was soon after torn to shreds; the work that sprung from her dedication to her craft was devalued, and she was subjected to enough online hate that, on a particularly rainy evening, she wound up on a footbridge right above moving traffic. With about two minutes left before the credits rolled, she stood on the rail, closed her eyes, and deemed that she didn’t want to “think” anymore. She dropped down and if not for the timely rescue of the series’ protagonist, this may have been the end for her.

“That put me in a really bad spiral,” Langomez said. “I wish I wasn’t watching it alone.” The series also came with content warnings apparently and her other regret was her decision to not pay much attention to them.

After the episode, she experienced a frame of mind that troubled her in the past—the kind that has led her to overthink, suffer psychosomatic pains and feel generally hopeless and overwhelmed.

“These things feel so visceral,” she shared and “they can catch you by surprise.”

In sharing this story, Langomez wasn’t simply speaking as a fan who has come to care deeply for the show’s characters. She also wasn’t outing herself as a squeamish viewer of a series launched by an episode involving two bloody murders. Hers, for one, was the perspective of someone who could relate. She is in the entertainment industry, after all; she knew how one honest mistake can seep into public knowledge, get misconstrued and fuel a deluge of inordinate harassment. Then there’s the other matter: the fact that like Akane, Langomez was also a survivor of suicidal ideatio. This contributed to her developing a condition that makes it a challenge to view content related to suicide. In 2018, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) And, this unpleasant experience from something that she loves is an intrusive reminder that it should never be taken lightly.

KNOW HOW THE PAST DISRUPTS THE PRESENT

A lot people with PTSD have a military background but it has been acquired by many who don’t.

In the hands of the mainstream media, PTSD is often presented as a condition which causes people to have violent reactions to stimuli that reminds them of traumatic events. It is often portrayed as a problem that affects those who have experienced war and have witnessed the various atrocities people are capable of inflicting upon each other. While this isn’t entirely untrue (since many of those with PTSD have gone to war,) it is also an oversimplified take on a complicated condition.

According to mental health experts from all over the world, this disorder can affect people from various walks of life. It tends to be diagnosed among those who have experienced a traumatizing event and their symptoms manifest at least a month after the incident. Both the Mayo Clinic and the American Psychiatric Association state that PTSD comes with a myriad of symptoms but they can be grouped into four categories.

The first are intrusive thoughts; these include flashbacks of the event which caused trauma, physical sensations reminiscent of what they felt during the event or distressing dreams. The second is avoidance, the burning desire to stay away of anything that may be a reminder of the traumatic event. Then there are the alterations in one’s cognitive functions and emotions; this could include symptoms reminiscent of depression and memory loss. And, finally, changes in arousal and reactivity which could lead one to be constantly on guard, irritable, and prone to reckless behavior. When unmanaged, these symptoms can eventually lead a person to have more psychological problems. These may also cause them to do irreversible damage to others and themselves with suicide being one of the possible outcomes of a difficult bout with PTSD.

“[When you have trauma,] you’re prone to catastrophizing,” Langomez shared. And, according to her, these can be some of the thoughts that go through the head of someone struggling with this condition: “It’s going to happen again.” “There’s nothing I can do about my life.” “What’s the point?”

This doesn’t always immediately lead to that, however. In many cases, people who have PTSD can appear to function normally. However, their difficulties can be more conspicuous when exposed to sensations that remind them of the event that caused their trauma. The words “trigger” or “triggered” appear regularly these days in various forms of media; some, however, use them not knowing they were actually sourced from earlier discussions demystifying PTSD.

“You have triggers when you have trauma,” Langomez said. And these can come in various forms people have talked about all over the internet. Some are expected (like loud noises which may resemble gunfire) and others, not so much (like the sight of strawberries, the smell of a specific kind of perfume; the list can really go on.) In Langomez’s case, some triggers come in the form of content related to sexual abuse and suicide. There are times when she can handle them, she shared, but sometimes—especially when she experiences them alone or is in the midst of a stressful time—they can cause her to unravel and suffer various problems.

“I’ve broken down [in front of] friends so badly that sometimes [they] would go ‘Kat, I can’t deal with this. It’s too much,” she said. There are those, however, who don’t have the luxury to distance themselves; people, for example, who live with those who deal with this condition. This has become especially true after what the world’s been through.

2023 was a year of traumatic events. In February, both Turkey and Libya suffered a devastating earthquake that ended around 55,000 lives, injured around 130,000 and caused property damage estimated at billions of dollars. As talks about global warming intensified throughout various parts of the world and drastic measures were taken by activists to draw attention to it, many weather-related calamities hit in different countries. In the United States, for example, the yearly record for natural disasters was broken in September after the country suffered the 23rd weather disasters of 2023 which caused at least 1 billion worth of damages. Meanwhile, compounding nature’s wrath are the man made: violence and abuse—some at a level that barely made the news while others (like Israel’s attack on Gaza) at a scale that took over the news cycle.

2023 was a year of great losses for many. And as 2024 rolls in, the knowledge of how to cope or help others cope with trauma has become a matter of high importance.

PUSH FOR PROFESSIONAL HELP

PTSD is not a condition that will go away without professional intervention.

Whenever they give advice on how to deal with PTSD, mental health experts and advocates tend to say the same thing: seek the help of a professional.

Among them is psychologist Richthofen de Jesus. Based in the Philippines, De Jesus currently works with Empath, an organization that provides mental healthcare services that have a noticeable focus on business-to-business programs curated for specific communities. Through this company and the years of experience he spent in his field, he has seen firsthand how complicated PTSD can be.

“It’s not something that would just go away naturally,” he said. He added that it needs to be addressed as soon as possible because it can evolve to other mental health issues like major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and dissociative disorder to name a few.

 “Sometimes, even your eating habits can be affected so you can develop bulimia or anorexia,” he shared. “It really depends [on the nature of the trauma.]”

What’s certain, however, is that this condition requires intervention from a trained professional. This is because effective treatment for PTSD normally involves psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both. Neither of which can be easily accessed by the untrained. That being said, there are methods people without mental health training can try to support someone who has this disorder. And these include the ones that help them rebuild their sense of self.

BE A CONFIDENCE BOOSTER

Rebuilding a person’s sense of confidence can help them with their PTSD-related struggles.

As Langomez mentioned, people with PTSD tend to acquire this idea that their lives are completely out of their control and hopelessness—which can lead to suicide—tends can stem from that.

 To prevent this from happening, De Jesus suggested counteracting that feeling through various means including carefully worded advice. For instance, when trying to convince someone with PTSD to seek professional help, these are his usual lines: “Is this something that you would like to continue for yourself for a long time?” “You don’t have to endure.” “There is a way to help yourself.”

The choice of words are notable here. Instead of telling someone what to do, he chooses instead to remind them that there is something they can do. This can appear like a small gesture but it is a meaningful one in a campaign meant to reestablish confidence. Such is a language that doesn’t just inform; it empowers. And assistance shouldn’t stop here.

One can then find the genuine strengths of that person, highlight such traits and use them as the foundation to assist the struggling individual in reconstructing a positive self-image.

“Understanding and finding out what your existing strengths are will allow you to have a good standpoint,” De Jesus said, “[it is] a good reference point to believe that good things can still happen in your life.” And when that is enough to get them to do things that better their current condition—like going to therapy or just keep pushing forward with their daily activities—he said it’s important to reinforce, to remind them that their accomplishments are theirs (however big or small those may be.)  

To give an example, De Jesus talked about his experiences with some of his patients. He didn’t name them, of course, but he did mention times when they would admit that their only recent accomplishments involve the completion of household chores (like washing dishes and watering plants.)

“That’s good,” he replied. After all, this, to him, is a sign that they still have the capacity for functionality. It is hope of a better future and he made sure to nurture that by letting them know of what such accomplishments meant.

Properly worded encouragement is not enough, however. And Langomez knows this.

SILENCE THE PAST; EMBRACE THE PRESENT

Grounding techniques and breathing exercises can help a person embrace current realities and defend the present from the past.

Aside from her personal experiences with PTSD, Langomez also has friends who are struggling with their mental health. This has given her a keen understanding on how to effectively support people with problems of the mind.

For PTSD, there are the obvious ones (like knowing a person’s triggers, being sensitive to them and knowing how to avoid them.) And then there are the quick solutions to immediate problems. These include exercises people can be encouraged to do when they are suffering the side effects of this condition like flashbacks or panic attacks.

“At the very baseline of everything is breath,” she said. And this is why she recommends doing the box breathing exercise. This involves inhaling, holding one’s breath, and exhaling for four seconds each. This is a well-known relaxation method that calms the nervous system and helps return one’s breathing to a rhythm that is natural.

She is also an advocate of grounding techniques; these connect people to the present. They can be done by describing one’s surroundings out loud or counting objects that share similar features. “Grounding techniques are so helpful,” she shared. “You kind of have to be conscious and understand what’s real at the moment.” Flashbacks and panic attacks can distort one’s idea of reality at a heightened scale and these exercises are meant to counteract that.

Speaking of what’s real, she stated that it’s also important for people to clarify what a person dealing with PTSD truly requires. “Do you need to vent or do you want advice?” Sometimes, this is the question one should ask, according to Langomez. After all, there are people with PTSD who already have the information they need to move forward. What they lack at times is the feeling that they genuinely matter. They can get that when others give them the space to speak their truth and when those people validate their feelings. This too is something that their loved ones can provide.

Langomez said however that while there is virtue in wanting to help, those who wish to do so should also be conscious of their own capacity. They should be able to judge for themselves if they are the right person to help in a specific situation or if they’re the type of person who can potentially make it worse. This became clear when she was around friends who also have suicidal ideations that may trigger her.

“If you can’t offer to be with them physically, you can direct them to resources,” she said.

One can also offer to make necessary calls, and—if one can—personally take the patient to their appointments to minimize problems with logistics.

BE PROACTIVE

Ask how they’re doing, be there for them, and be proactive if you truly want to help someone struggling with PTSD.

In many cases, people with mental health problems genuinely want to get better but their negative feelings and moods can easily discourage them. Their chances of getting daunted can be lessened greatly by someone willing to take care of logistical concerns. Such is one of the benefits of being proactive which—according to both De Jesus and Langomez—is an important trait to have.

In the attempt to highlight the importance of proper PTSD care, De Jesus said that people who have mental health problems like this often show signs of their condition getting worse.

“You’ll notice the social withdrawal,” he said. It can then be followed by a loss of interest in things they used to be invested in. One can then start to let go of things that used to have sentimental value and ultimately have the tendency to “not care anymore.” All of these are warning signs of someone who might commit suicide.

“Once a person makes certain attempts, they’re considered at risk and you have to take over,” he said. “Keep the doors unlocked, always try to keep sharp objects, medicines and pesticide away from that person.” Do the work before they do something irreversible.

Before it gets to this point, however, Langomez said that people should try to be more active in checking up on their loved ones dealing with PTSD. It is important, she said, to let them know that they are not alone. It provides them with the information that may allow them to challenge some of the negative thoughts that can arise from their trauma.

“Actually, there are people who do care about you.” “Actually, there might still be something good waiting for you.” “Actually, there is hope.” These are the things one may understand just because someone genuinely asked them how they are. And for those who have PTSD—as well as other mental health concerns—such thoughts can mean a lot.

“Sometimes people don’t see that,” Langomez said. And at the heart of it, this is one of the major problems with this disorder.

REMIND THEM THAT THEY ARE NOT THEIR TRAUMA

An artwork Langomez made in response to her previously tumultuous mental state.

PTSD is a condition that threatens the future by distorting the past; it can present the idea that the event which caused their trauma cancels the other aspects of their overall definition. For example, if one suffers a frightening event, one can develop the mentality that they are vulnerable to such things happening again, fixate on that and go on a downward spiral. And suddenly, all the nuances in their life that once made them excited and secure can seem untrustworthy.

Langomez knows this feeling; something similar sent her on a tail spin last year. But during one of her therapy sessions, she learned something which ended up helping her. “I’m not my trauma,” she said. “I’m not the traumatizing incidents that happen to me. I’m so much more than that.”

Indeed. Sometime between her 2023 episode, the time she spent getting treatment for her condition and the present day, she regained a better view of who she is.

“I’m Kira Kira Kat in all of my socials,” she said. She’s an artist and a self-professed shit poster. She is also an advocate of mental health awareness and a single mother raising a child in the autistic spectrum. She was once involved in a toxic relationship that threatened her well-being but she escaped that. She also suffered suicidal ideations and survived.

She also remembers her childhood. It had school yard bullies and nannies in the place of parents who worked hard but she did find comfort in the arts, her “weird group of friends” and yes, anime—something she can still enjoy to this day.

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