The impact of PTSD on partners: From burden to self-care

May 30, 2019
The impact of PTSD on partners: From burden to self-care

By guest blogger, Daniela Rabellino, PhD

Daniela has recently joined the mental health counselling team at Our Clinic. Daniela is a PhD in Neuroscience with a specialty in Cognitive Science and also has a Masters in Clinical Psychology. She is a researcher at Western University in the field of Post-Traumatic Stress.

After a traumatic event, a person can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a severe form of stress that tremendously impacts the life of the individual and that calls for appropriate treatment. At the same time, the family, and especially the partners, find themselves carrying the burden of such a demanding condition while representing the primary support. Among the consequences that PTSD has on partners, there is a high risk for severe psychological distress. Moreover, if we consider partners of veterans who come home with PTSD, the burden of caring for their partner comes after an already challenging period when the partner was deployed, and they had to take all the responsibility regarding the household, while facing fear of the unknown and social isolation. The newly acquired roles and responsibilities can increase pressure and daily stress leading to caregiver burden.

What is caregiver burden?

Caregiver burden refers to the difficulty of managing the demands deriving from caring for someone with a chronic illness. It has been adapted to describe the situation of partners taking care of a significant other with PTSD, as they have to step in and respond to multiple demands, from the more practical (such as financial management or medications) to the affective ones (mediate the relationship of the partner with the children or with friends and family). As the PTSD symptoms increase, also the burden on the partner’s shoulders increases.

Let’s try to understand what happens when you live with someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD…

You find yourself constantly dealing with the unpredictable: you know your loved one will have a strong reaction sooner or later, but you do not know when or where this will happen; you have to take on new roles and responsibility (the burden); you become a peace-keeper in the house, protecting the children from the impact of PTSD and dealing with the partner’s negative emotions.

A vicious circle establishes in the relationship between partners, when one of the two is diagnosed with PTSD and the other assumes the caregiver role. The caregiver tends to become overfunctioning in order to answer all the requests and to avoid conflicts. However, the overfunctioning of the caregiver enables the underfunctioning of the PTSD partner, who in turn increases his/her demands. Overfunctioning also creates resentment and heavy fatigue, leading to stress and vulnerability for depression and loss of identity. The “empathy trap” enters in the game: the caregiver feels responsible for the partner’s well-being despite having little control over the partner’s PTSD symptoms.

Unfortunately, it is not unlikely in such a problematic situation to experience Secondary Traumatic Stress. This is a natural emotional reaction when a significant other has lived a traumatic experience. As partner of a person with PTSD you can develop symptoms similar to PTSD such as:

  • nightmares about the person who was traumatized,
  • insomnia,
  • loss of interest,
  • irritability,
  • chronic fatigue

Also, physical symptoms may present that are related to Secondary Stress such as:

  • headaches,
  • indigestion,
  • susceptibility to infections,
  • increased use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco

These reactions are not uncommon. Research studies found that 30 to 40% of partners of war veterans diagnosed with PTSD developed Secondary Traumatic Stress.

Significantly, when caregiver burden and Secondary Traumatic Stress take over, the psychological distress takes the form of depression or anxiety.

Too often, partners of persons with PTSD struggle alone in silence. They experience loneliness and social isolation. They dedicate their lives to the support of the significant other and tend to disregard their own personal physical and emotional well-being, with too high costs for their short- and long-term health.

Mental health services offered to the caregivers of people with PTSD becomes of primary importance. In fact, it would positively impact the caregiver’s mental health and social functioning, with positive consequences on their own physical health, the partner’s recovery, the relationship between partners and, in the end, the wellness of the whole family.

If you are the partner of a person who has been diagnosed with PTSD, take action and find care for yourself promptly.  At Our Clinic, we can provide a holistic approach to your well-being, addressing the psychological challenging you are experiencing, while taking care of your body.



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