I know that wives of PTSD vets and military go through a lot of personal stress, anxiety and even depression caring for their husbands. What I didn’t know is that this effect is called Secondary PTSD. Many spouses and loved ones of veterans are at risk for Secondary PTSD. What is it and how do you cope?

Secondary PTSD (SPTSD) is also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS). Secondary traumatic stress refers to the presence of PTSD symptoms caused by a person’s indirect exposure to a traumatic situation. It’s stress that comes from dealing with someone else’s firsthand trauma and the avoidance reactions related to that trauma. Secondary traumatic stress is sometimes called compassion fatigue or burnout. It can happen in any situation of violence, abuse, natural disaster and other traumatic events.

We know how PTSD affects vets and military persons. SPTSD affects a caregiver by gradually sliding her/him into a role where she/he is constantly watching out for people and situations that might set off the loved one. The caregiver starts avoiding people, situations and places that might bring flashbacks or cause aggravation to the vet.

In essence the caregiver starts to mimic the PTSD behaviour of the vet in order to keep situations calm. You start avoiding places and people. You start isolating yourself but you are the one responsible for getting things done in the home, workplace and for the family. You start anticipating your loved one’s behaviour and reactions, but you never really know when your loved one will explode emotionally. You get yelled at for no reason and you begin to feel unloved.

How do you cope with SPTSD? Counselling is necessary to restore balance to your life. This is usually free for vets but depending on where you live, there might not be any free counselling available to wives or children. Give An Hour in the US offers free counselling to military spouses, children and caregivers. If you can’t find a free counselling service for military families, then make sure the counsellor you choose has experience dealing with PTSD. Not all psychologists are trained to deal with PTSD.

Try to establish some Me Time. Easier said than done sometimes. Having some alone time to unwind and relax is essential for any caregiver. You can refer to articles I’ve written on how to take care of yourself.

Finding someone to talk to about your worries is also helpful. Because you are dealing with SPTSD, it makes more sense to talk about your problems with another vet spouse or family member. You need to talk to someone who knows and can relate to your specific problems. As always, the support should be non-judgemental.

Finally, there’s non-profit organizations such as Family Of A Vet, which offer advice and support for military families and vets. VA centres are a great place for resources and ideas to help military families deal with both PTSD and SPTSD.

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