Vets Share PTSD With Spouses, Study Finds

When millions of veterans return home from war, they may also bring home stressful memories and images of what they had hoped to leave behind. The stress and trauma that these veterans bring home permeates into their family and can cause mental and health risks to others. Of the over 2 million soldiers returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 25 percent show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Multiple studies have shown the dangerous effects that a traumatic event can incur on a person, but a new study focused on how that trauma can affect both the mental and physical health of the spouse of that person, too. Researchers found that most spouses of those with PTSD also suffered great stress and anxiety, and were sometimes at even more risk of cardiovascular problems related to this stress. These findings may help families of those with PTSD find early treatment to prevent PTSD symptoms from spreading and damaging an entire family.

Sharing the Burden

In a marriage, spouses become partners who share both the good and the bad. University of Utah researchers found that when one spouse had PTSD, it was often shared with the other spouse.

Researchers interviewed and compared 65 couples who had a spouse who was a war veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan. Half of the couples included a spouse with PTSD, and the other half of the group included couples where neither spouse had PTSD. By chance, all of the spouses with PTSD were male in this study. Couples were asked questions that relate to all married couples: about their children, their finances, their marital satisfaction, and what makes them disagree with each other. They were also given questionnaires to check for signs of depression, anxiety, anger, and PTSD.

Physical Difficulties

What researchers found was not surprising to some couples. The partners of those with PTSD were taking on some of the pain, anxiety, anger, and stress of their husbands. However, what was very surprising was that many of the wives had higher blood pressure rates than their spouses with PTSD. Stress in the marital relationship, because of PTSD symptoms, was actually damaging the wives’ health. Spouses of PTSD veterans are at risk of cardiovascular diseases such as stroke, heart disease, and hypertension, according to these new findings.

Emotional Difficulties

Not only did the researchers find that spouses may be more at risk for physical illness, but for mental illness, too. A marital relationship that shares the struggles of PTSD can be filled with frequent arguing and angry conflicts. Spouses respond with their own anger, anxiety, and feelings of disconnection from their partner. Some victims of PTSD have a difficult time showing affection. Without this affection, both partners suffer depression and loneliness.

Study co-author Tim Smith, Ph.D. finds some light in the dark findings. At least with this knowledge, Smith says, practitioners may find new management treatment for those who may be at most risk of PTSD from their marital relationship.