When Caregiving Leads to PTSD

caregiver ptsd counseling

Most of us associate post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with veterans of war, but new studies are finding that a person doesn’t have to be a soldier to experience the condition.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder characterized by failure to recover after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Sadly, PTSD is a common problem with over 3 million cases per year in the US alone. While is it a treatable condition that sometimes resolves within months, it can last for years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions.

Symptoms of PTSD can include nightmares or flashbacks, avoidance of situations that bring back the trauma, heightened reactivity to stimuli, anxiety, or depressed mood. Treatment options include different forms of psychotherapy, group therapy, ands medications to manage symptoms.

How Caregiving Can Cause PTSD

PTSD sometimes develops in a person who has experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. When people experience a traumatic event, it’s common to be impacted by it with a range of thoughts, feelings and emotions. However, people with PTSD don’t recover from this initial trauma. It doesn’t have to be triggered by a dangerous event. Many people experience PTSD after the death of a loved one or another emotionally challenging experience, such as long term caregiving of a loved.

The chances of an individual developing PTSD after a long period of caregiving depend on a number of factors. The following are some of the things that may influence this:

  • The length of time of caregiving
  • The nature of the relationship between caregiver and patient
  • The level of chronic pain in the patient
  • The patient’s diagnosis as well as prognosis
  • The level of financial and emotional support of both the caregiver and the patient

There are other risk factors for PTSD in caregivers that are more commonly found in PTSD, such as:

  • Living through dangerous events and traumas
  • Seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body
  • Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
  • Having little or no social support after the event
  • Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury, or loss of a job or home

Seeking Treatment for PTSD

If you think you may be experiencing PTSD, begin by talking with your family doctor. If you aren’t ready to seek formal treatment, there are still some things you can do. Begin by reducing stress with exercise and look for comforting situations can help you feel more supported. Ask for some help from family and friends, particularly with situations trigger your symptoms. It can also help to try to be more realistic about what you can accomplish each day. Try breaking up projects into small tasks, and accept that you can’t possible do absolutely everything.

It can also help to recognize that for most people ongoing caregiver is physically, emotionally, mentally exhausting and financially draining as well. This is especially true for adult children who take care of parents with dementia or another severe disability. In many cases, the caregiver feels an extreme amount of pressure and guilt to provide constant care, but powerless to stop the debilitating condition of their loved one.

PTSD doesn’t go away overnight, but it can get better. In most cases, the best way to treat PTSD is with therapy. Depending on the caregiver’s situation, that could be private, group or family therapy sessions. Other helpful things include meditation, massage therapy and other self-care measures. Ultimately, the best way to treat PTSD is to recognize the symptoms and exercise self-awareness. Remember that self-care should always come first so that you are in the best emotional and psychical shape to take care of your loved one and prevent conditions like PTSD.

References

Beckham, J. C., Lytle, B. L., & Feldman, M. E. (1996). Caregiver burden in partners of Vietnam war veterans with posttraumatic stress. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 1068 – 1072.

Chakrabarti, S., & Kulhara, P. (1999). Family burden of caring for people with mental illness. British Journal of Psychiatry, 174, 463.

Piccinato, J. M., & Rosenbaum, J. N. (1997). Caregiver hardiness explored within Watson’s theory of human caring in nursing. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 23, 32 – 39.

Schulz, R., Newsom, J., Mittelmark, M., Burton, L., Hirsch, C., & Jackson, S. (1997). Health effects of caregiving: The caregiver health effects study: An ancillary study of the cardiovascular health study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 19, 110 – 116.

Vitaliano, P. P., Schulz, R., Kiecolt-Glaser, J., & Grant, I. (1997). Research on physiological and physical concomitants of caregiving: Where do we go from here? Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 19, 117 – 123.