Most people associate PTSD with veterans of war, but you don’t have to be a soldier to experience this condition.

The NIMH defines PTSD as ‘a disorder that develops in some people who have 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 emotions. 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.

Risk factors for PTSD will sound familiar to family caregivers. They include:

  • 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

You can learn about the symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD on the NIMH website.

If you think you may have PTSD, talk to your family doctor. If you aren’t comfortable seeking treatment, there are still some first steps you can take. Reducing stress through exercise and seeking out comforting situations can help you feel more secure. Get support from your friends and family, especially by letting them know what situations trigger your symptoms. Try to be realistic about what you can do each day, break up projects into small tasks, and accept that you can’t do everything. PTSD doesn’t go away overnight, but it can get better.

Here’s what some of our veteran caregivers have to say about PTSD:

After caring for my husband, for 20 years, I am afraid to answer my phone, open mail, or attend doctor appointments, fearing more bad news. I just want to hide. – Lynn R.

If you sleep with one ear open, you startle easily. Loss of sleep triggered by this startle reflex, will lead to ptsd. People who fail to understand my situation don’t believe me, but thankfully medical professionals do. – Angela M.

After 27 years caring for my very vulnerable son, I can tell you that it is indeed PTSD. For a mother, the fear of something happening to your child is much worse than anything that could happen to yourself. I have an anxiety disorder and have suffered from depression. You live in terror every time you hire a new respite worker, and only trust yourself as a caregiver. Your decisions carry so much weight that some days you feel they will crush you. – Dawn D.

Being part of caring for my MIL definitely has caused PTSD. Its a complete nightmare, and now I am scared of her! She talks about cutting people and watching them bleed! I know its the dementia, but she scares the hell out of me! I have nightmares about all of it! – Vickie B.

Anecdotally, caregivers who take care of a family member who is or has been abusive are more likely to talk about suffering from caregiver PTSD.

I’m the only child in my 50’s. My parents are near 90, refuse all outside care, cashed in their life insurance policy with not enough for burial. Now there is over 12k in medical bills and they won’t call a lawyer or approve forms for Medicaid. They say no one is putting them in a home. Mom has fallen numerous times and in nursing care and Dad signs her out. To stay out of care she shifts blame onto anyone including, and most of all, me. Agencies won’t help. Doctors quit the case. AOA said it’s one of the most difficult cases they have encountered. – Jacqueline A.

I wish my mom would understand that no one wants to help her because she is a mean old spiteful monster who has alienated EVERY one in the family to the point that they don’t even want to call to talk to her anymore. But she blames me for it! – David R.

I used to think that I would ignore my stepfather who abused me, but when it came down to it…I had to treat him better than me. – Jennifer K.

I can relate to caregiver PTSD from taking care of my mother that never took care of me & Granny that raised me! – Chrissy G.

What should you do if you feel you have caregiver PTSD?

The reason you have PTSD is because you love and you care. The key to reducing anxiety is to get out of your own head. Watch your self talk. Be kind to your mind, it does not know the difference between perceived danger and real danger….live in the moment! – Dawn D.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, you may, very well, benefit from talking with a therapist or counselor. I have learned to take time, for myself, once in a while, to spend a few hours, with friends, or even just go for a ride. I feel guilty, for even smiling, sometimes, but we have to take care of ourselves, and find ways to keep our spirits uplifted, while we care for others. For what it’s worth, I would advise you to, whenever you can, do something special, for yourself, even if it is a meal out, a movie, or just something you like. Try to interact, in a positive way, with others, and rejoin the human race. You are entitled to happiness, and, your [loved one] may even want that for you, as well. – Lynn R.

Some comments have been edited slightly for clarity and grammar.

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