PTSD and its role-reversal effect on family caregivers

By Juliza A. Ramirez-WylieFebruary 8, 2013

Caregiver burnout prevention
Caregivers of service members diagnosed with PTSD may occupy a different and greater care-giver role, upon their service member's return from deployment. In many circumstances caregivers may be thriving in this new role, but they can prevent and redu... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- Many family members of recently-deployed service members find themselves in a different roll, with new responsibilities, upon their service member's return from combat.

If Post traumatic Stress Disorder is involved, family members may now occupy a different and greater care-giver role, and in many circumstances may even be thriving in that role.

The effect of PTSD on primary care-giving family members can seem minimal, but is often of longer duration and greater intensity than they are used to providing. New opportunities to avoid PTSD triggers such as avoiding large crowds and specific topics of discussion present a growing challenge.

Family member caregivers are directly affected by the PTSD symptoms of a loved one.

In prolonged or severe cases of PTSD, family members may feel "burned out" or a sense of "caregiver burden," according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Caregiver burnout is the experience of feeling physically, psychologically, and medically unhealthy due to over compensation of family members when caring for service members with PTSD, according to the VA.

Spouses, and at times even the children of service members returning from deployment, experience a shift or increase of the caregiver role and may take on a greater share of household tasks. These household tasks often include paying bills, housework, and caring for children or other extended family members.

The shift in caregiver role occurs within the home setting and includes family-related activities and responsibilities. This shift can also carry over to other settings to include children's educational institutions and extracurricular activity settings, as well as and the military service member's medical appointments. It can take a toll on the family caregiver and affect how their performance at their place of work.

The shift in caregiver role usually becomes most apparent after the family member's return from a deployment and can exist in some form throughout the individual's life. At times, individuals diagnosed with PTSD have reported an increase in PTSD symptom intensity that comes with aging. This may be due to changes in health, relationships, social roles, and an increase in time spent reflecting on combat experiences.

Some families experience greater caregiver stresses on family relationships, to include the parenting roles and the marriage. Symptoms of PTSD can get in the way of achieving intimacy in a relationship. Parenting difficulties and marital problems are a common occurrence with service members and their families who encounter PTSD.

Additionally, PTSD can negatively affect overall life function and wellness of a military member, which in turn can affect the quality of their relationships. Military service members with PTSD are more likely than military veterans without PTSD to experience a lower level of happiness in life, or an overall decline in life satisfaction.

Caregivers of service members diagnosed with PTSD and other behavioral health disorders can prevent and reduce the experience of caregiver burnout by implementing strategies that support self-care.

The VA has outlined some care-giving tips that can be useful for family members who are experiencing caregiver burnout. These tips rely strongly on participation, education, and social support.

One way to try to remember the VA's tips is through the use of the acronym, "PEAS."

Participate in your service member's behavioral health treatment. Encourage him/her to seek treatment when needed.

Educate yourself about PTSD, the medical facilities in which your service member receives treatment, and the routines of your service member.

Attend to warning signs of potential relapses or suicide risk.

Seek social support and engage in other positive self-care activities. It is okay to ask for help as a survivor of trauma and PTSD, according to Bob Delaney, author of Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post-Traumatic Stress, and namesake at Delaney Consultants.

"Military service members are generally givers in the game of life, but it is okay to be selfish in this case," said Delaney.

Although the caregiver shift due to PTSD may add additional stress and responsibility to other family members, it can also be an opportunity for younger family members and spouses to exercise greater independence and responsibility.

Family members and service members can be resilient and learn to thrive while managing PTSD.

What exactly is PTSD?

A service member's stress response to combat-related events during deployment is a normal reaction. But a normal post-deployment stress response can last for weeks and may return infrequently or even stay with the service member permanently.

Service members exposed to traumatic events may develop what the medical community has recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a prolonged stress reaction to a traumatic event. It is experienced through symptoms of re-experiencing, hyper-arousal, and avoidance of triggers related to the traumatic event.

PTSD is treatable with appropriate behavioral health treatment and time.

For more information or to talk with a Behavioral Health Specialist, call (866) 299-4234 for an appointment.

(Editor's note: Juliza A. Ramirez-Wylie, M.Ed. is a Psychology Technician at the Behavioral Health Department, General Leonard Wood Army Community)