Taking Care of Yourself When Your Spouse Has a Combat Stress Injury

*MilitaryCafe.org does not provide medical counseling services for issues such as substance abuse, suicide prevention or post-traumatic stress disorder. The article provided below is for informational purposes only.

When your spouse returns from a deployment with a combat stress injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, you might find yourself preoccupied with taking care of him or her. But even as you try to care for your spouse, you need to remember to take of yourself as well. If you feel yourself emotionally and physically exhausted by the role of caregiver, know that there are steps you can take find relief.

Combat stress and symptomsCombat stress is a common reaction to the stressful, dangerous, and disturbing experiences of war. It’s often the natural outcome of exposure to one or more traumatic or life-threatening events, or of being in a high-stress environment for a prolonged period of time. Everyone is changed in some way by combat experiences. For some, the symptoms of combat stress are actually symptoms of an injury, and these can become a longer-term mental health concern.

Symptoms of combat stress sometimes begin immediately after a traumatic experience, but in many cases, weeks or months pass before they become apparent. Common symptoms most likely to affect family life and relationships include:

  • angry outbursts, irritability or aggressive behavior
  • being constantly on guard or easily startled, loss of confidence and trust
  • loss of positive or loving feelings toward loved ones
  • feeling numb and without emotion
  • flashbacks, nightmares and painful recollections
  • loss of interest in life, mounting sadness, depression, or isolation
  • risky behavior such as drug or alcohol abuse and unsafe driving

Post-traumatic stress disorderWhen symptoms of combat stress continue for weeks or months without improving, or get worse, it may mean the person has developed PTSD, a medically recognized anxiety condition that can occur after exposure to trauma. It is not clear why some people develop PTSD and others don’t, but it is clear that having PTSD is not a sign of personal weakness. Anyone exposed to a severe traumatic experience is at risk.

The most important thing to remember about combat stress and PTSD is that your service member should get professional help if symptoms continue for more than a few weeks, worsen or interfere with normal daily life. There are effective treatments available and getting help early can prevent symptoms from worsening or becoming a long-term problem.

Caregiver burdenWhen a combat veteran has combat stress symptoms that continue over time without improving, family members often take on the role of caretaker. If you’re in this situation, you may:

  • believe it’s your responsibility to keep your loved one calm and comfortable at all times
  • have taken over all the responsibility for finances, child rearing, and household upkeep
  • feel that you have to control the circumstances that trigger symptoms

Caregiver burden describes the physical and emotional strain of caring for someone with a chronic illness or dysfunction, which PTSD and combat stress sometimes become. Symptoms of caregiver burden include anxiety, stress, depression, social isolation and health problems.

Coping strategiesIf you’re living with a combat veteran who shows signs of combat stress or has been diagnosed with PTSD, there are many things you can do to reduce caregiver burden and protect your marriage and family. These suggestions from PTSD experts have helped many family members manage the changes in their lives:

Familiarize yourself with combat stress and PTSD. You can start with online resources through the Veteran Administration’s VA’s National Center for PTSD.

Encourage your loved one to get help. Care for combat stress and PTSD is available through the Military Health System or the VA’s National Center for PTSD.

Acknowledge that your service member has been injured. Understand that combat stress and PTSD are not weaknesses. Knowing this helps erase the stigma that prevents many combat veterans from getting mental health treatment. 

Have reasonable expectations of yourself. Family members often believe they must take care of their loved one’s every need and make everything perfect at home. It is okay to let some things go.

Caring for yourselfCaring for a loved one with a combat stress injury can be emotionally and physically taxing, and though you may solely be concerned with helping your loved one cope, you are still important. Allow yourself time to accept the changes in your life and relationship, and while you support your loved one, take care of yourself as well.

Resist guilt. Caring for someone with a combat stress injury is a large responsibility; don’t feel guilty if you don’t have all the answers or need to seek help.

Seek your own support system. When your loved one has a combat stress injury, you become their support, but you need a support system, too. A social support system of friends and relatives, or a more structured support system of organized support groups or medical professionals can make a huge difference in your resilience and general well-being. Open up to people you trust who will listen without judgment.

Make time for you. If even a few minutes each day, find a relaxing place and give yourself time to regroup and recharge. Regular exercise is one example of a positive and healthy way to cope with stress you may be carrying around as a result of your loved one’s combat stress injury.

Celebrate happy memories and create new ones. A loved one with a combat stress injury may not seem like the family member you remember, so keep some of your favorite memories in mind. Whenever possible, make time for family traditions and activities so your family can create new memorable moments.

Communicating with childrenIf you have children who are exposed to your loved one’s combat stress symptoms, they’re likely to be as frightened, confused and stressed as you are.

Try to explain the reasons for the combat stress symptoms in a way that’s appropriate for the child’s age and without going into disturbing details. Create opportunities for children to express their feelings, and enjoy occasional outings with your kids so you can focus on one another.

For additional helpIf you continue to find yourself struggling and feeling overwhelmed, individual counseling or a support group for family members may give you a place to share your feelings and give you the coping skills you need.

You can access non-medical counseling services through your installation family support center. Non-medical counseling is intended to prevent the development or exacerbation of lifestyle conditions that may compromise military and family readiness. Non-medical counseling is designed to address issues such as improving relationships at home and work, stress management, adjustment issues (e.g., returning from a deployment), marital problems, parenting and grief and loss issues.

The counselors available through the MFLC program can also provide referrals for medical counseling services in your local community.