Do you have STSD?

Do you have STSD?

May 6, 2011 ~ If your loved one is suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), then you are probably experiencing your own psychological trauma.  Everyone in the family is profoundly affected by PTSD.  In fact, many family members will develop Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD). Whether you are living with the PTSD survivor or not, you are likely in near “crisis” mode far more often than you can fathom.  You will not be an effective support for your loved one if you are not facing your own STSD symptoms.

What is STSD?

Those who have been associated with trauma survivors may experience their own difficulties.  Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as Compassion Fatigue or Secondary Stress, is a real problem for many of our families and many of our health care givers.

Anyone associated with a veteran diagnosed with PTSD may find themselves suffering from STSD.

The following information was taken in part from Nancy Brossart of Company G.  We have adapted it to read from the perspective of a parent caring for an adult child living with Combat PTSD.

When any family member experiences psychological trauma and suffers PTSD, the entire family is profoundly affected. Though the trauma was directly experienced by only one family member, the other family members may experience shock, fear, anger and pain in their own unique ways simply because they care about, and are connected to, the survivor.  Living with an individual who has PTSD does not automatically cause PTSD, but it can produce “secondary” traumatization. Whether family members live together or apart, and whether or not they feel emotionally close to one another, PTSD affects each member of the family in several ways.

  • The survivor may lose interest in family or intimate activities and may become emotionally isolated or detached.  Family members may feel hurt, alienated, frustrated and discouraged.
  • The survivor may exhibit behaviors that indicate he is irritable, tense, anxious, worried, distractible, startled, enraged, controlling, overprotective, and demanding. Family members may feel like they live in a war zone, often reacting in anger, or purposely distancing themselves from the trauma survivor.
  • Even if the trauma occurred decades ago, the survivor may act feel as if the trauma is still happening.  Family members may also feel as if their secondary trauma is still happening.  As time passes, the family may begin to avoid activities with others, and become isolated from friends outside the family.  They may feel that no one outside the family could possibly understand their situation.
  • The trauma survivor often feels there is no future for which to look forward. Family members may find it very difficult to have a cooperative discussion with the survivor about important plans and decisions for the future.
  • The survivor may have difficulty listening and concentrating. He may become easily distracted, tense, or anxious. He may become hyper vigilant, displaying angry and overly suspicious behavior toward family members. The trauma survivor may become fearful about problems becoming terrible catastrophes. As well, the family may find it difficult to discuss personal or family problems because the survivor may become controlling, demanding, overprotective, and anxious.
  • Family members may become over involved with the lives of healthy family members due to need for positive emotional feedback, or they may ignore the healthy members of the family giving all of their attention to the trauma survivor.
  • Family members may find their sleep disrupted by the survivor’s sleep problems (reluctance to sleep at night, restlessness, severe nightmares or episodes of violent sleepwalking).  Family members also often find themselves having terrifying nightmares, leading to a fear of going to sleep, or difficulty getting a restful night’s sleep.
  • Ordinary activities, such as shopping, driving or attending a movie may trigger traumatic memories and flashbacks throwing one into “survival mode” suddenly and without explanation.  The survivor may shut down emotionally, or leave abruptly leaving family members feeling stranded, helpless, and worried.
  • Trauma survivors with PTSD often struggle with intense anger or rage and often have difficulty coping with the impulse to lash out verbally or physically. Family members can easily feel frightened and betrayed by the survivor, despite feeling love and concern for their loved one.
  • Family members are also frequently exposed to emotional, financial, and domestic problems. Survivors experiencing PTSD may seek relief and escape with alcohol or other drugs.  Addictive behaviors such as gambling and eating disorders are common.  Addictions offer false hope to the survivor by seeming to help for a short time.  Soon these addictions increase the fear, anxiety, tension, anger and emotional numbness which go hand in hand with PTSD.
  • When suicide is a danger, family members face the unavoidable strains of worry, guilt, grief, fear, and anger.

STSD in Parents of Combat Veterans

Parents may play an important role in the recovery of a combat veteran, especially if that veteran is not married.  Parents will worry about their child’s psychological condition while continuing to function at work and at home. It can completely consume the life of a parent who is trying to provide care and support and parents may eventually realize that they are not taking time to take care of themselves or their own marriage.

Parents may experience constant tension and anxiety because they “never knows what he’ll do next”. They may develop a critical attitude because of “what he puts me through”.

Parents may have few friends or be unable to relate to friends as they would like because they feel their child has alienated others with his attitude and actions.  Their friends may not understand and may come across as judgmental when giving advice on how to handle the situation.

Parents may become emotionally numb. They may no longer be able to experience true intimacy with each other because they may be arguing over how to deal with the situation. They feel that God has let them down. They may escape into a fantasy world of television or books.  Parents might resort to compulsive shopping or eating or even turn to an extramarital affair.

Parents may become “tired of trying” and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness may set in. Low self-esteem may be evidenced by poor appearance and a dirty home.

Over the years, resentment and bitterness will likely develop toward the child suffering with PTSD, as well as toward other family members and friends.  This will lead to frequent arguments between family members.

In an attempt to keep the family stable, one parent may become an enabler.  Often it will be the mother, who may take over duties and responsibilities for fear they will not be taken care of by the trauma survivor.  The PTSD sufferer may learn that he does not have to take responsibility for these tasks.  This will lead to further feelings of anger and resentment between the parents and the adult child involved.

Parents may feel guilt for negative feelings toward the trauma survivor.  They may feel guilt for taking things out on the other children or friends and extended family.

Parents may also deny that they have problems themselves. It may be easier for them to blame everything on their trauma survivor. Parents may feel that no one can possibly help her and deny herself the opportunity for help.

What can families of trauma survivors with PTSD do to care for themselves and the survivor?

  • Continue to learn more about PTSD by attending classes, viewing films or reading books on the subject.
  • Encourage, but don’t pressure, the survivor to seek counseling from a PTSD specialist.
  • Seek personal or family counseling if troubled by “secondary” trauma reactions such as anxiety, fear, anger, addiction, or if you are having problems in school, at work or with intimacy.
  • Others in the family may find they have low self-esteem issues and blame themselves for the survivor’s unhappiness. There is a good chance that the family members will feel unloved and inadequate.  Seek counseling for anyone in the family who seems to be exhibiting any of these symptoms.

Originally published at


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  2. [...] her book and how Secondary PTSD has affected her family. During the interview, VOW Radio hostess, Beth Pennington, will also be sharing about her own battle with Secondary PTSD.  If you think this is something [...]

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