In earlier posts, we have discussed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the effects it can have on the lives of veterans who have it. But PTSD can not only wreak havoc in the lives of those who suffer from its symptoms, but also take its toll on their families. Research on PTSD has shown that veterans with PTSD have more marital problems and family violence, their partners have more distress, and their children have more behavior problems than do those of Veterans without PTSD.
Why does PTSD affect family members? For one, families will naturally react to the fact that their loved one has gone through a trauma. It’s upsetting when someone you care about goes through a terrible ordeal. Trauma symptoms can make a person difficult to get along with, or cause him or her to withdraw from the rest of the family. There may be resulting financial burdens if the trauma survivor has severe enough symptoms that keep them from holding a job. There may be difficulties in their relationship with their spouse if they avoid emotional connections or have a lower sexual interest. They may exhibit less interest in family activities that they previously enjoyed. Or they may lash out in anger more easily or become violent. It can be very difficult for everyone when these types of changes occur, especially small children who may find it difficult to understand why it is happening. Just as people react differently to traumatic experiences, families also have different reactions when a loved one is traumatized. The following are common reactions of family members of a person with PTSD, according to the National center for PTSD:
- Sympathy: Family members feel sorry for what their loved one has had to endure. This can help your loved one know you care and sympathize. But on the extreme end of the spectrum, it can lead to “babying” or lowering expectations, which may lead to the trauma survivor feeling like their family doesn’t believe they can overcome the ordeal, or that they are weak.
- Depression: One source of depression for family members can be the traumatic event itself. Knowing a loved one had to endure such a difficult experience. Depression is also commonly experienced when the person with PTSD acts in a way that causes feelings of pain or loss. If they withdraw from normal family activities, or interaction, when a traumatized spouse avoids intimacy, etc.
- Avoidance: Just as trauma survivors are often afraid to address what happened to them, family members are frequently fearful of examining the traumatic event as well. Family members may avoid the same things that the trauma survivor avoids because they want to spare them further pain or are afraid of their reaction. This may lead to frustrations within the family if regular activities are abandoned.
- Anger: This is a common response among families. Loved ones may feel angry at whoever they feel is responsible for the trauma; they can also feel anger toward the trauma survivor, if they exhibit strange behavior or continue to dwell on the event. They may also feel angry in response to anger or irritability the trauma survivor directs at them.
- Drug and alcohol abuse in response to the stress the trauma has caused in the family’s life, as well as sleep problems. Children may exhibit behavioral problems at school.
The first step for families to do is to gather information about PTSD, to better understand where the changes are stemming from. Resources on the National Center for PTSD website may be useful to educate the family about the effects of trauma. There are many support groups for both veterans with PTSD and their families, and group and individual therapy. The VA has taken note of the effects of PTSD on veterans as well as their families and has begun to offer groups, couples, and individual counseling for family members of Veterans. Contact your local VA Center for details on programs available in your area.
(Information for this blog post was found on www.ptsd.va.gov)