How Does PTSD Impact the Family?
People suffering from mental and behavioral health illnesses such as PTSD have many treatment options. Medical research continues to expand our knowledge of the brain and how it works, so we can treat it when normal brain functioning breaks down. The more sophisticated medical science becomes, the more we can zero-in on the exact cause and treat the specific areas of the brain that are affected.
There are effects of PTSD, however, that go beyond its point of origin. Like other mental and behavioral health illnesses, PTSD doesn’t just affect the person who has it — loved ones are affected in some way, as well, because the disorder changes a person’s ability to uphold responsibilities and even interact with other people.
How does PTSD affect your family? It can affect your family in many ways, some you may not even realize. The best way to combat the effects are to learn as much as possible about PTSD and its treatment.
What Is PTSD?
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) gained mainstream popularity in recent decades when tragedies reported in the news were attributed to the disorder. The general scenario was that a soldier home from combat duty, someone who had bravely and honorably served this country, killed someone in a fit of rage, and no one understood why.
The idea that war changes people in psychologically significant ways has been around since ancient times. With each modern war, science studies the effects and tries to refine the diagnosis and treatment. As a result of new studies involving survivors of the Holocaust and other major traumas, the definition of PTSD was adjusted in 1980 to include all traumatic events, not just war.
The current understanding of PTSD is that it’s a trauma-related psychological disorder. When you experience or witness a traumatic event, sometimes it is too much for your brain to process. People who develop PTSD get stuck at some point in the processing of their thoughts and feelings surrounding the incident. They go over the event in their minds all the time and relive the terror, sometimes with increased intensity.
Not everyone who lives through trauma develops PTSD. Some of the factors that determine whether the disorder will develop are:
- How long the trauma lasted
- How you reacted at the time of the event
- Whether or not you were involved or a witness
- Whether you were injured and how seriously
- Whether anyone died in the incident
- How out of control the event made you feel
- How much support you received after the event
These factors, combined with your existing health and state of mind before the incident occurred, determine the extent of its effects on you. Everyone who goes through the same trauma, a catastrophic storm for example, does not react in the same way. Some will recover quickly, while others require therapy to move past the incident and get on with their lives.
Who Does PTSD Affect?
PTSD can turn your life upside-down, especially before you get diagnosed. Since PTSD is more common now, people who experience trauma or return home from combat are aware it could happen to them. Usually, PTSD develops right away following a trauma, but in some cases, it might not begin to emerge until six months later.
Some of the symptoms of PTSD include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Inability to concentrate
- Loss of memory
- Anxiety and fear
- Avoidance of driving or crowds
- Inability to discuss the traumatic event
- Spontaneously reliving the event
If you’re suffering from PTSD, it can become very disruptive to your life. You may experience trouble at work because you can’t concentrate. Insomnia can create its own set of symptoms, exacerbating the problem. Fears and anxieties may eventually keep you from interacting socially or even leaving your house. As the PTSD worsens, irritability and unexplained mood swings may cause your relationships to fail, leaving you alone and depressed.
No longer considered just a military disorder, PTSD is more common than most people believe. These startling facts and statistics about PTSD show just how widespread it is:
- Approximately 7.5 percent of the American population will have PTSD at some point in their lives
- Women develop PTSD at a rate of 10 percent, while the rate in men is only 4 percent
- Each year, 8 million people have PTSD
- Someone who goes through a long-lasting trauma is more likely to develop PTSD
- People injured in trauma are more likely to develop PTSD
- People with a family history of mental or behavioral health illness are more likely to develop PTSD
- PTSD is more likely to develop after the loss of a loved one
- People who drink excessively are more likely to develop PTSD
- Victims of childhood trauma are more likely to develop PTSD as a result of trauma later in life
How Does PTSD Affect the Family?
Like other mental and behavioral health illnesses, PTSD affects the whole family. It is difficult to live with someone who is having nightmares, avoiding social situations, and is nervous and fearful all the time. The behavioral changes brought about by PTSD can be alarming — when you think you know someone, and then they act differently, it can shake the balance of your relationship.
The effects of PTSD on the family can be wide-ranging. Loving someone with PTSD can bring out some common reactions, such as:
Watching someone you love become a different person can be very upsetting. When you see the qualities you loved in your spouse, for instance, change into behaviors you do not recognize or do not like, it is common to feel angry and hurt.
You just want the old person back and cannot figure out exactly why they have changed. You may begin to wonder if they really were the person you thought they were, or if this new behavior represents their true character.
It is common to feel depressed when you have a family member with PTSD. Similar to caring for someone with a serious physical illness, living with someone with PTSD can be draining emotionally.
PTSD can disrupt many of your household routines. Constant nightmares or insomnia can affect your sleep patterns. If the PTSD lasts a long time, you could lose hope of ever getting your family back to normal.
Most family members feel sympathy for a loved one suffering from PTSD. This is a normal reaction to a devastating condition. Sympathy is usually a short-lived emotion, and it can become destructive if it goes on too long.
People with PTSD do not want to be different from their former selves or others. Sympathy could move you to treat your loved one like a victim — someone who is permanently unable to deal with the world around them. Too much sympathy could have a negative effect on your loved one’s recovery from PTSD.
Coping with a family member’s PTSD can cause you to ignore your own health. Many of us have unhealthy ways of dealing with stress such as drinking, overeating and not exercising. PTSD can compromise healthy routines, and unhealthy routines will flourish. This can lead to serious health problems for family members.
Depending on how long the crisis lasts, diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease can develop under these conditions. When all of your energy is going to support your loved one, you no longer pay attention to your own needs.
People with PTSD tend to isolate themselves because they are afraid of social interactions or dangers such as traffic or strangers. Family members may join in this isolation in solidarity.
Some people will also avoid social situations when they have a family member suffering from PTSD or any mental or behavioral health disorder. They are afraid of the criticism and shame attached to mental or behavioral health illnesses in our society.
Isolation may protect your loved one while they are recovering from PTSD, but it will not have any positive effects on you. It is important to maintain contact with the outside world, especially with people who are not suffering from PTSD. Isolation will warp your perspective and potentially cause a mental or behavioral health illness in you, such as depression.
Helpful Solutions for Family Members
Whenever you are dealing with someone with a chronic illness, it is important to remember you cannot help them if you are not well yourself. Maintaining your own physical and mental health during this crisis is important for everyone.
Crisis naturally brings out all of our bad behaviors and habits. By recognizing what is happening, you can make some efforts to correct the situation:
- Join a support group — Even though you are not the one going through PTSD, recognize that you need help coping with this situation. There are many support groups available in any community, and most of them are anonymous. Find a group and start going to meetings. If the group is not specifically for PTSD family members, that’s ok. What you are experiencing is similar to what family members of addicts go through, so any one of the 12 step program meetings designed for family members will be helpful to you.
- Seek help — Getting your own counselor may be very helpful for you during this difficult time. Everyone needs some support. Counseling could teach you how to support your loved one and also how to practice self-care. You can develop some stress-reducing techniques that could improve your life and health.
- Schedule time away — Just like any caregiver, you need time off from the situation to keep your perspective. Most people put their family responsibilities before everything else and will sacrifice their own well-being in a crisis. Make a commitment to attend a weekly class, go to the salon or just meet up with some friends. It is important to schedule this and do it every week.
- Maintain your normal routine — It is tempting to drop everything and rearrange your life around your loved one’s needs. In some respects, it may be necessary to make some modifications. But maintaining your normal routine as much as possible is critical to your own well-being. Go to work, attend church, visit with friends and do everything you normally do. Keeping up your regular routines will help you feel a sense of normalcy during this stressful time.
- Manage your expectations — Sometimes PTSD develops very quickly. A traumatic incident that lasted for just three minutes can precipitate the disorder. Overcoming PTSD, however, does not happen as quickly. Knowing what the problem is and fixing it are two very different steps. Understand that progress will be slow, and sometimes there will be setbacks. Do not expect a quick resolution. In some ways, even when the PTSD is resolved, your life may not go back to exactly the way it was before.
How to Support a Spouse with PTSD
You cannot cure someone you love of PTSD. While your support is helpful, you are not the answer. Everyone — no matter what they’ve been through — is responsible for their own health.
In the case of PTSD, professional help will be required, but that is not your role. There are, however, some things you can do to help support your loved one’s recovery from PTSD.
Maintaining a healthy marriage can be a challenge on the good days. Trying to keep it together while your spouse is battling PTSD is an even greater challenge. Realizing that PTSD affects you, as well, and that your loved one needs your help to get through the recovery is a good first step. Once you are committed to facing PTSD together, you should try to:
- Remain involved — Just because your spouse is struggling with PTSD and may be isolating from others, doesn’t mean you can do the same. Attend those mandatory work events with them and accompany them to social events. Keeping up appearances will let them know you are not afraid of how they might act out in public, and you are there to help them through it if something comes up. It also sends a signal to others that your loved one is okay because a support system is intact. If it appears you’ve abandoned your loved one, others may turn away, as well.
- Separate the actions from the person — People with PTSD behave differently than they did before. Sometimes their actions can be frightening or just upsetting. Remember that they are struggling with these changes, as well, and are trying to get back to normal. When your spouse does something that makes you angry, recognize it is the action and not the person you are mad at. You might even communicate this by using specific language that describes your disapproval of what they did, explaining it’s the action you are unhappy with. It is not easy to remember that the person you love is still in there behind the PTSD. Separating their actions from their character will help.
- Schedule daily time together — For at least 30 minutes a day, spend time alone with your spouse. You don’t have to plan a special activity or go to a particular place — just be together. It is important to have this time alone to renew your connection on a daily basis. It is easy for people with PTSD to feel as if they are slipping away. They feel different, isolated and alone. Maintaining a regular connection will help hold your marriage together and show your spouse support.
- Focus on the little things — You can express your support in a daily gesture. Little signs of affection you give every day may be more important than big gifts. Find a way to express your affection each day in small gestures, such as a compliment, a note or a look. The daily reminder will help your spouse feel connected to you, and remembering the gesture each day will focus your attention on the positive aspects of your relationship, as well. It may be the brightest moment in many of your days.
- Avoid comparisons — Each family is different, and each case of PTSD is different. It’s counterproductive to assume other marriages are handling PTSD better than yours. Comparisons just invite unneeded stress into your day. It can be helpful to ask others for tips and ideas on how to cope, but they are just suggestions. What works in one marriage will not necessarily work in another. That doesn’t mean one is better — it just means that everyone heals at their own rate.
- Let go of the little things — Marriage can be a delicate balance of compromise. No matter how you managed this balance before, PTSD will change the way you look at things. You may have fought in the past over who left the light on in the hall when you went to bed. With the changes that PTSD has brought, however, leaving the light on at night could become necessary. You might have to be willing to overlook little things that would have been a big deal to you in the past. You have PTSD in your house now. It requires letting the little things go.
- Look forward, not back — With PTSD, there is a tendency to dream about the good old days, before all theses changes came into your life. When things are not good, it is natural to remember when they were. Looking back is not going to help your current situation, though. Avoid these thoughts or references when talking with your spouse who is struggling with PTSD. They know things are different and would like to go back to the way they were before, too. But they are powerless to make those changes, and you reminding your loved one how much better life was before will only make it worse. Instead, concentrate on the future. Point out the positive strides your loved one is making, identify the happy moments when you share them and talk about how you can build from here.
You should always encourage your loved one to get treatment for PTSD and support their efforts to follow their treatment program. PTSD does not usually resolve itself. It requires behavioral therapy to process the emotions associated with the traumatic event and get the brain unstuck. There are several treatment options available including cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
Get Your Loved One Help and Heal Together as a Family
If your family is dealing with PTSD, contact 12 Keys Rehab. Our compassionate experts can help your loved one overcome PTSD — and your whole family heal.
At 12 Keys, we take a holistic approach to treating PTSD and other mental and behavioral health illnesses that typically accompany addiction. Your loved one will benefit from the latest treatment modalities as part of their customized treatment plan. With the time to focus on healing and the experienced, empathetic support of our experienced professionals, your loved one can also address any co-concurring issues, such as addiction.
Your family will also benefit from counseling. You’ll be able to heal broken bonds while developing new strategies to support your loved one through this difficult time. You’ll learn more about the condition and ways to return your family to a more stable and happier place.
12 Keys can provide you the support you are looking for to put your family on the road to a healthy, rewarding life. Contact us today to start the healing.