Caregiving for a Veteran with PTSD: How Loved Ones Can Help

PTSD can affect the entire family, not just the veteran.

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Military service has always affected the entire family. Military families include loving and dedicated spouses and children who must navigate unique and challenging situations. Even when the veteran returns home, things aren’t necessarily “normal.” Family members may find themselves caregiving for a veteran with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“PTSD can affect not only the veteran who’s struggling with it, but also their entire family,” says Amanda M. Spray, PhD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

How PTSD Affects Loved Ones

“The symptoms of PTSD are such that they can really lead to a lot of change in behavior, and so it can be very challenging,” says Dr. Spray.

For example, veterans with PTSD may be tense, irritable, detached, or withdrawn. They may avoid certain activities due to fear of PTSD triggers. Some may have trouble sleeping, which may affect their physical and mental well-being during the day. All of this can impact relationships. In fact, around five to 10 percent of veterans with PTSD experience lasting relationship problems, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

One of the most challenging effects of PTSD on relationships is withdrawal. “What can happen in relationships is a lot of feelings of loneliness,” says Dr. Spray. Loved ones might feel “a desire to really want to help, but not feel like they’re allowed to.”

How Loved Ones Can Help

If you’re caregiving for a veteran with PTSD, it’s normal to feel discouraged sometimes. However, it’s important to remember that the changes in your loved ones don’t reflect how they feel about you or the relationship.

“One thing that family members can do to help is to be there and to provide support,” says Dr. Spray. You can also encourage them to “speak to a mental health professional or another friend to get them to start to know that help is out there.”

Talking to others is a major step toward treatment and recovery. Recovering from PTSD is not a matter of discipline or willpower: It’s a complex disorder that requires professional help. This may include psychotherapy and/or medications. Learn more about treatment for PTSD here.

Even if your loved one refuses to talk to others about their PTSD, there are other ways you can help. “It can be very helpful … while they’re experiencing a reaction to a trigger in their environment to help ground them in the situation,” says Dr. Spray.

Dr. Spray suggests talking them through the situation and reminding them where they are. For example, say things like, “We’re here on the subway. We’re riding to our next destination.”

“Coach them through it verbally,” says Dr. Spray. “That can help them [if] they’re starting to feel like they may have a flashback or they’re being reminded of their traumatic event. Really grounding them to the present moment can be very helpful.”

Taking Care of Yourself

As a caregiver, it’s important to avoid de-prioritizing your own well-being. Even if you want to focus on helping your loved one with PTSD, taking good care of your own physical and mental health may allow you to take better care of your partner.

Self-care as a caregiver includes giving yourself “me time,” exercise, eating well, avoiding alcohol and other substances, getting enough sleep, and managing stress levels, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Taking care of yourself may also include seeing a therapist. In fact, attending therapy yourself can help your loved one in many ways: Not only will you be in a better mindset to be supportive, but you may also indirectly encourage them to try therapy themselves.

“Maybe the family member coming into [therapy] can help destigmatize the experience for the individual with PTSD,” says Dr. Spray. “Maybe that can be a place for the family to start.”