Caring for Those with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Family Caregiving August 22, 2016 Print Friendly and PDF

  Does your wounded warrior…

  • Have difficulty sleeping or suffer from nightmares?
  • Have unwanted memories or thoughts?
  • Suffer from anxiety and panic attacks?
  • Become irritable or angry or express violent behavior?
  • Use alcohol or drugs to cope with stress?
  • Feel scared or confused?
  • Have trouble managing daily activities?

If so, he or she may be experiencing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many survivors of a traumatic event return to normal with time, whereas others take longer to heal—these individuals may develop PTSD.

Causes and symptoms of PTSD

PTSD is an anxiety disorder or condition that is common in wounded warriors who have been exposed to traumatic events while performing their military responsibilities.

According to Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, service members serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are involved in a variety of situations that can have an impact on the mental state and emotional well-being of an individual. They endure long periods of extreme stress, experience intense battlefield activity that poses personal harm and involves the taking of life, experience their own injuries, and witness the injuries and deaths of others.

PTSD is a silent, invisible injury that may be characterized by three main clusters of symptoms. According to the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior, the three clusters are re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and hyperarousal symptoms.

  • Re-experiencing symptoms may be characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive memories.
  • Avoidance symptoms center on avoidance of thoughts associated with traumatic experiences.
  • Hyperarousal symptoms include sleep disturbance, anger/irritability, difficulty concentrating, and an exaggerated startle response.

Strategies for helping and coping

Living with a wounded warrior who suffers from PTSD can place a heavy burden on the caregiver. PTSD patients may experience difficulties in social, professional, and family life, along with their own internal struggles. It's important to learn how to help your wounded warrior and yourself respond to your situation.

  • Document your wounded warrior’s symptoms in a diary by paying special attention to how mood, feelings, and stress impact his or her daily activities.
  • Reduce the stress you and your wounded warrior experience by trying behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques, such as meditation.
  • Identify your wounded warrior’s triggers. Triggers are things that brings about a symptom of PTSD, such as sounds, smells, words, or even certain people. To avoid setting off triggers, develop a good communication system with your wounded warrior.
  • Encourage contact with family and friends. A support system may help your wounded warrior get through difficult changes and stressful times.
  • Check with doctors about antidepressant medications that may help your wounded warrior feel less sad.
  • Recognize that your wounded warrior might not want your help all the time.
  • Take walks, go for bike rides, or do other physical activities together. Exercise is important for keeping brain activity in balance.
  • Establish routines.
  • Join a support group for caregivers who are experiencing similar wounded warrior situations. Locate such groups by contacting your local Army installation's Soldier and Family Assistance Center (SFAC). 
  • Learn as much about PTSD as possible. Knowing how PTSD affects people may help you understand what your wounded warrior is experiencing. 

Emotional impact of caregiving

Helping an individual who has PTSD can be hard on the caregiver. As a caregiver, you may have your own feelings of fear and anger about what is happening to your wounded warrior, or you may wonder whether life will ever return to the way it was. These emotions can begin to affect your ability to serve. 

  • Do not feel guilty or feel that you have to know it all. Remind yourself that nobody has all the answers and that it's normal to feel helpless at times.
  • Do not feel bad if change is minimal. You cannot change anyone; people have to change themselves. 
  • Take care of your physical and mental health.
  • Make time for activities and hobbies that you normally enjoy.
  • Take time to be alone. Find a quiet place to gather your thoughts.
  • Exercise regularly; exercise offers a healthful way to deal with stress.
  • Eat healthful foods to have the energy you need to carry you through the day. 

 Describing PTSD-like symptoms of a spouse

Caregiver resources

For more information about caring for those with PTSD, check out the National Center for Telehealth and Technology’s virtual PTSD tour to learn about causes and symptoms of PTSD and resources for information and care.

Also, call the Veterans Health Benefits Service Center toll free at 1-877-222-VETS, or go online to Specialized PTSD Treatment Programs, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Contact your local Army installation’s SFAC for information about support groups and caregiver support services. For additional information on caregiving, visit the VA Caregiver Support website.


  1. Dekel, R. & Monson, C. 2010. Military-related post-traumatic stress disorder and family relations: Current knowledge and future directions. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 15, 303-309.
  2. Force Health Protection & Readiness Quick TBI and PTSD Facts.” Force Health Protection and Readiness. 3 Feb. 2011.
  3. Hayes, J., Wakefield, B., Andresen, E., Scherrer, J., Traylor, L., Wiegmann, P., et al. 2010. Identification of domains and measures for assessment battery to examine well-being of spouses of OIF/OEF veterans with PTSD. Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, 47, 825-840.
  4. Helping a Family Member Who has PTSD.” National Center for PTSD. 1 Jan. 2007. 3 Feb. 2011.
  5. Murdough, Brenda. 2009. Pain Management Series: Part 2: Pain, Depression, PTSD, and the Silent Wounds of War. The Exceptional Parent, 39, 83-85.
  6. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2). Aug. 2009. 3. Feb. 2011.
  7. Whealin, Julia (2004). War zone related stress reactions, what veterans need to know. National Center for PTSD. Retrieved February 3, 2011.

Photos provided by the U.S. Department of Defense.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.