What is PTSD?
Ever been frightened and unable to sleep after watching a horror movie due to nightmares or feeling on edge? Ever been scared the first time you rode a roller coaster and thought to yourself that you would never ride it again? Well, these feelings and emotions are completely normal for such situations.
But have you ever experienced a traumatic event? Or been in a traumatic situation? Felt terrified, experienced nightmares felt on edge, or swore to yourself never to go there again? Suffered with these thoughts and feelings, lasting for weeks and then for months? These can be the upsetting and frightening consequences of a traumatic event.
It is quite normal to have upsetting memories or even flashbacks from trauma. Having constant flashbacks or feeling on edge saps your energy.
At first, it may be hard to carry out your daily activities. Going to school is a chore. You don’t have the motivation to get on that bus to work. Spending time with people you love and care for feels like a burden. You start to slowly pull away. Most people who have undergone trauma feel better after a few weeks or months. They may be the lucky ones. If it’s been more than a couple of months and you are still experiencing the same feelings and symptoms, you may have PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short, is a mental health condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event. Wars, natural disasters, accidents, or sexual violence can be potential triggers.
It is not easy being the victim, but it is also not easy being around the victim. If one of your family members, relatives, or friends has PTSD, it may affect you both, directly and indirectly.
PTSD changes people. The person you are living with may not be the same after the trauma. Being around someone who is easily startled, has nightmares, or avoids social situations can take a toll, even on the most caring and understanding family members.
Direct & Indirect Impacts of PTSD on Families
We initially thought of PTSD as only affecting the trauma victim. Over time we have learned and the research has shown the impacts on families as well. PTSD can have both direct and indirect effects on friends, family, and those close to us.
Research has shown the negative impacts on married life. Spouses diagnosed with PTSD will have symptoms. They may be less emotionally available, withdrawn, or quick to anger. This can have a direct impact on a marriage. Understandably the couple may start to drift apart.
Partners of people diagnosed with PTSD may experience significant psychological distress in comparison to the general public. Partners often carry the greatest emotional load. Caring and supporting someone day in day out starts to take a toll. The concern here is that this carer stress leads to partners developing mental health concerns of their own.
Children experience it differently. Sometimes a child might take on a caring role, witness anger or violence, feel neglected and find it all very confusing. Everyone’s experience of PTSD is different. How it impacts our children depends on various factors – for example, the age of the child, the child’s temperament, the pre-existing relationship between the child and parent, plus what other supports the child has.
Problems such as being unable to cope at work or impaired work performances may also emerge, leading to financial pressures on the family. For example, PTSD could mean not being able to afford rent, canceled family holidays, or just not being able to make ends meet.
A secondary provider in the family may need to step up and provide financially. This impacts parent-child relationships. Children may be neglected. It is not a stretch, as a result, for a child to start acting out in school or become withdrawn.
PTSD unfortunately, is stigmatizing. We are ashamed and try to conceal it. We are just not aware of how common trauma and its ongoing effects are. By trying to conceal such difficulties and problems, we limit the help we can receive. A considered and thoughtful approach is necessary; help can be found by opening up to the right people.
Substance Abuse & PTSD – Impacts on families
Both PTSD and drug use affect not only the patient but also the entire family. It may involve codependency, enabling, or avoidant behavior at home. Complex interpersonal dynamics can come about following the trauma and then the use of substances to numb its effects.
Generally speaking, people who abuse substances will increasingly isolate themselves from those at home. Using substances may mean we skip family meals and stay in our rooms. Inconsistencies that result from substance use are confusing for the family, especially young children. Alcohol addiction may mean we just can’t make it to our child’s football practice the next day.
Negativity may often lead to criticism, blaming, and expression of displeasure. People with PTSD may be more critical towards their partners or children. Members of the family may start to resent their home situation but may be scared to express themselves or get help. They, too, may turn to alcohol or other drug use as a way of coping.
Family changes as a result of PTSD
Loved ones may develop behaviors that mirror those of the person diagnosed with PTSD—for instance, adopting a similar worldview, thinking people can’t be trusted, or avoiding going out because it’s dangerous.
They may feel helpless and hopeless if the person diagnosed with PTSD remains untreated. Family stress and strains over long periods can trigger a mental illness in those taking care of the person with PTSD.
In some instances, PTSD means changing homes. The local area becomes too triggering. This can be disruptive to the family, especially for older children.
When the perpetrator of the violence is a family member, it adds extra complexity. Trust is lost, families are torn apart, and the damage is often too great to repair. The impact can be intergenerational. Children of both men and women sexually abused by a family member may grow up less trusting due to their parent’s traumatic experiences.
How can you help
PTSD can be hard on families. Here are some ways to help a loved one who is suffering from PTSD.
Treatment starts with education or learning about PTSD. Everyone’s experience is different. Often the family is involved early on in understanding more about the trauma, its impacts, and how to help. Therapy forms the mainstay of treatment.
Currently, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma-focused CBT have the strongest evidence base for the treatment of PTSD. Patients will learn to challenge their thoughts and change their behavior.
As a result, they can integrate back and spend more time with their family. Loved ones are important and can play a notable role in the recovery from PTSD.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About the Author: Dr. Joseph Kekulawala is an Australian Psychiatrist. He runs most of Epsychiatry Regional Clinics across Rural Western Australia and has an interest in Autism. Dr. Kekulawala is passionate about open, transparent, and patient-centric care for clients.
The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios only.
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