By Erin Golden
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be triggered by a variety of situations — an assault, a bad car accident, time spent in a combat zone. The effects can wreak havoc on the lives of the people who suffer from them — and on the people closest to them.
Being the spouse, family member or close friend of someone dealing with PTSD can be a stressful and unpredictable experience. But experts say it’s important to know you’re not alone, and that you have an opportunity to have a big impact on your loved one’s road to getting better.
“A lot of times having post-traumatic stress disorder can be very isolating,” said J. Gayle Beck, a University of Memphis professor of psychology who specializes in PTSD research. “So it’s important that they open up and start leaning on friends and loved ones.”
In recent years, Beck said, PTSD has sometimes become a catchall term to describe a number of responses to serious or life-changing events. An actual diagnosis, however, comes with a specific set of guidelines.
First, there’s the trauma.
“The working diagnosis we use in making diagnoses has been changing over time,” she said. “Currently, we talk about a traumatic event being something that creates a pretty profound feeling of horror — that you might die. It’s pretty far outside of what most people might experience in their daily lives.”
Then, there are the symptoms. They can vary from person to person, but generally fall into three specific categories.
One type of symptom involves people “re-experiencing” the traumatic incident. Casey Taft, a staff psychologist at the National Center for PTSD and an associate professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, said that can include feelings or memories that spring up either during the day or while sleeping.
“It’s traumatic memories that keep coming back, causing stress, flashbacks, nightmares, those sorts of things that remind the person of their trauma,” he said.
A second set of symptoms is centered on the PTSD sufferer doing everything in his or her power to avoid those memories and flashbacks. That might mean avoiding looking at photos or watching particular types of movies, or just refusing to talk about the traumatic incident or anything related to it.
Finally, PTSD sufferers can experience what experts call “hyperarousal” symptoms. Those come with a feeling of constantly being on edge.
“Sleep is often interrupted, and people wake up feeling like they haven’t slept,” Beck said.
All of those symptoms can make a person suffering from PTSD seem quite different than he or she was before. Taft said family members of people with PTSD tend to be very aware of the avoidance type of symptoms.
In his work with military veterans and their families, Taft said he often hears about families that feel torn apart because of one member shutting down and pulling back.
“One of the things the partners of veterans often say is that the veteran isn’t as engaged in the family as they used to be, they don’t express feelings and they’re not involved day to day,” he said. “They have difficulty experiencing and expressing emotion.”
If those kinds of behaviors go on for too long, Taft said, it can be hard to rebuild relationships.
While experts don’t advise diagnosing PTSD on your own, the friends and family members closest to the person experiencing symptoms can be crucial to help detect a problem and then direct the PTSD sufferer toward help.
If a person seems withdrawn, emotionally numb, less joyful, preoccupied, cranky or jumpy, it’s the job of the family member to say, “‘It’s been a month and a half since the car crash, and you really seem not like [yourself],’” Beck said.
In severe cases, some people suffering from PTSD may require prescription drugs to help alleviate symptoms. In most situations, cognitive behavioral therapy is the first approach, which allows people to talk out what they're going through with someone trained to recognize and treat the disorder.
Treatment may come with exercises to do and adjustments to make in the home, so it’s important for loved ones to be supportive and make accommodations that work for everyone, said Beck.
“Your role at home is to support any and all homework efforts,” she said. “That means redistributing life maintenance chores at home, so certain homework can happen in rush hour or working with your spouse to figure out how to get all the tasks of daily living done.”
And often, spouses and other loved ones can get directly involved in therapy work.
Taft said a new and promising type of treatment involves couples-based therapy sessions. Often, he said, patients are reluctant to see a therapist but feel more comfortable if they’re not going alone.
He also suggests seeking out support groups and other resources in the community. Military veterans have access to several types of organizations, but therapists may be able to suggest groups for other PTSD sufferers and families.
Published on May 21, 2013