What are the Signs and Symptoms for Secondary PTSD?

Secondary PTSD is not a recognized mental or emotional illness but it is real to those who are living with a PTSD survivor.

1.  From Brannan Vines, founder of Family Of a Vet– a great reference post entitled Secondary PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder):

“The signs, symptoms, and effects of Secondary PTSD are just as varied as the ones exhibited by Veterans with “primary” PTSD.  It really is hard to explain, unless you’ve lived it.  However, I’m going to try!”

“Basically, when you’re living with a veteran who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you become his (or her) caretaker.  You slip into a role, without even noticing it, that has you constantly watching for people or circumstances that might “set him off.”  You’re trying to make sure everything stays in line – that nothing aggravates or upsets your vet – that everything is “perfect.”  Despite your best efforts, you’re still getting screamed at and berated by the person you’re trying to help on a much too frequent basis. ”

“Your vet is not emotionally “there” for you.  When you’re upset or happy, angry or sad, you have to deal with your emotions on your own.  You begin to feel ignored and unloved and start “protecting” yourself by treating others – especially your vet – the same way.”

“You’re also probably handling all household chores, childcare, financial management, etc. You get no help (or very little) from your spouse.  You’re the cook, chauffeur, secretary, accountant, yard guy, child care provider, laundry service, etc., etc., etc.  Everything in your family feels like it’s up to you.  It is a 24×7 job at which you constantly fail.  It’s not humanly possible to do everything – or to prevent PTSD from creeping in.”

“This cycle takes its toll on many spouses.  You lose yourself.  It’s impossible to tiptoe around your vet, day in and day out, while taking care of all of life’s other duties (duties normally shared between two people), without feeling the strain.   And that strain soon transforms into… ta da… Secondary PTSD.”

“Secondary PTSD may make you feel overly angry, depressed, exhausted (but, alas, unable to sleep), overwhelmed, and just plain unhappy with the world around  you.  I can honestly say there have been times when I found the idea of folding a load of laundry absolutely impossible.  I felt like I could not do anything right.  I cried a lot and was really, REALLY pissed at the world.”

2. From Living with PTSD and TBI: “Secondary PTSD and Me“:

“When you are seeking information regarding PTSD you usually come across the term of “Secondary Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” or “Compassion Fatigue”. I have read on Family of a Vet, (a site in which I haunt quite frequently) about this subject and the author/owner of the site has a special way of describing things on an every day person’s level. Another words, it’s simple, to the point, and in no way must you have a Harvard degree or be a psychologist to understand any of it. If you are a caregiver or spouse for your veteran with combat PTSD, definitely check out her site along with her description of Secondary Post Traumatic Syndrome. Now I didn’t go out to seek out my mental problems nor did I think in anyway I am going nuts…but I admit that I have had some problems here as of late.”

“My last doctor visit my blood pressure was really high…enough to be put on medicine for it. Tension/migraine headaches can sometimes be debilitating to the point where now I have a special med that is a kick ass Tylenol mixed with Zanax for nerves. Let’s add in the anxiety pill that I take as needed, and the medication for depression which is really for my Rheumatoid Arthritis (I promise I am not 80!) and helps combat the battle of the blues in the process. So the two or three bottles of meds have now increased to 11 and I was forced to get a pink old lady pill box daily reminder for myself all before my 35th birthday which is quickly approaching! It’s quite depressing really because I still feel young, still feel somewhat sane, and embarrassed I should have to admit to anyone I am taking so many pills. My doctor made a comment that I could be suffering from Secondary PTSD so I have been looking at it a little closer now that she has brought it up.”

3.  From Beth Ellen McKinney writing in counseling. Suite101.com: “Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder“:

Secondary PTSD Risk Factors in the U.S. Military

“Respected researchers such as Figley, Pearlman and Saakvitne have been documenting cases of secondary PTSD in psychotherapists since 1995. Figley, who refers to the condition as “compassion fatigue” notes that empathy is an important part of a therapist’s role, but acknowledges that it can have a cost. Pearlman and Saakvitne, who describe this condition as “vicarious trauma” state that sometimes “the therapist’s inner experience is negatively transformed through empathic engagement with clients’ trauma.” The result may be Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD).”

“However, anyone who gives care to a traumatized person is susceptible to STSD, including children and spouses of active duty military personnel. It seems to be more likely to occur among people who have experienced prior traumatic events themselves. People who have other types of mental illness may also be at risk. However, social isolation or a lack of inner resources, such as a strong spirituality, can cause anyone involved in the care of a traumatized person to be debilitated by STSD.”

Symptoms of Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder

“People with STSD may experience the same symptoms as the traumatized person. These symptoms include depression with suicidal thoughts and feelings, as well as feelings of loneliness and betrayal. This condition may also lead to substance abuse. Many people with STSD will have difficulty carrying out regular tasks at work and home. In some cases, their ability to cope will be severely impaired.”

“Family members of traumatized persons will often develop hyper-vigilance. Since they are impacted by the traumatized person’s emotional crises, they become sensitive to small mood changes or other risks to stability. Eventually they may find it difficult to relax and feel as if they are “walking on eggshells.” This may also make sleep difficult.”

“If the stress continues over a long period of time, mental health professionals, caregivers or family members may eventually develop negative feelings toward the traumatized person. They may become unwilling to provide care. They may even become verbally or physically abusive toward the traumatized person. Therefore, it is important to treat STSD as soon as possible.”

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