Caring for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

James Cartreine, PhD
James Cartreine, PhD, Contributing Editor

Are you taking care of someone who seems to be against you? This can be the experience of taking care of a family member with post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — and it can take a huge toll on everyone involved. At the same time, caring for a person with PTSD can be an act of love and courage.

What causes PTSD?

PTSD can develop when people experience massively stressful events that involve childhood physical or sexual abuse, being sexually assaulted, or narrowly escaping getting killed or severely injured, whether from accidents or violence or military combat. PTSD can also be caused by witnessing these kinds of things, by them happening to a close friend or relative, or by learning about them in the course of one’s work, such as being a first responder or a social worker helping victims of abuse.

What are the effects of PTSD?

Whether caused by experiences during military service, abuse as a child, being the victim of assault as an adult, or as a side effect of jobs that deal with trauma, the effects can be lifelong. It’s a medical problem, not a weakness. Adrenaline levels stay elevated, causing anxiety, irritability, and hypervigilance (being on guard even in safe places). People with PTSD may become snappy and even physically aggressive. Little, everyday sounds may make the person jump. The ability to feel positive emotions like love and happiness is diminished, and people with PTSD may drink or use drugs to avoid painful feelings and memories. People with severe PTSD may isolate themselves, lashing out and showing little affection toward people they care about, and who care for them. Conflict with family members and coworkers is common.

Caring for a person with PTSD

It can be hard for caregivers not to take it personally. They feel that their loved one doesn’t love them anymore (and indeed it’s difficult for some people with PTSD to feel and express love). The fun is gone, and in romantic relationships so is the intimacy. The family member with PTSD may not be comfortable going out in public or being touched. Caregivers can feel lonely and abandoned, and divorce is common in relationships where a partner has PTSD.

Watchwords for caregivers are self-care, limits, and realistic expectations. It’s a balance: you want to help your loved one but you can’t do that if you’re impaired yourself. So, self-care is important. Figure out what you need to have a happy and healthy life and make an effort to keep those things in your life. Eat right, get exercise, take time off from caregiving, see friends. When you’re healthier, you’ll be better able to help your family member to be healthier.

Set limits. You want to offer gentle support, but not tolerate things that are out of bounds for you in any other relationship, such as abusive language or actions, or heavy substance abuse. Couples therapy can be tremendously helpful when one member of the couple has PTSD.

Expectations need to be realistic. Just as other medical disabilities can limit the activities of people who have them, you may need to adjust your expectations about your loved one’s engagement in “regular” family things like going on outings, to restaurants, to parties, to your kids’ games. You may need to take more of a lead in the relationship than you used to or expected to, such as in managing finances, making plans, and getting things done.

The good news? There are effective treatments for PTSD

The good news is that we live in a time when effective PTSD treatment exists. PTSD is best treated through cognitive behavioral therapies, particularly exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy. These are specialty treatments and not all mental health clinicians are trained in them. A loved one with PTSD may be reluctant to seek treatment, and gentle encouragement can be helpful. You can find therapist referrals at the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

PTSD symptoms may not completely go away, but they can be reduced. Just like turning down a volume knob, constantly high levels of anxiety or irritability can be lowered, and the power of memories and reminders of trauma can be reduced.