This Military Pathways blog post identifies the following six guiding principles from Rebecca Townsend, a military family therapist, who recently shared her thoughts with Military Pathways on what military families can do to cope with post-deployment stress or a family member with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
1. You can experience secondary trauma. While service members with PTSD may feel hypervigilant and edgy, their stress can rub off on family members. Townsend points out that spouses will often walk on egg shells wondering what will set their spouses off that they themselves become hypervigilant. "They anticipate what might be a trigger and how they will react," Townsend said. "How their spouse reacts one day may differ from how they act another day."
2. Education is power. "We have to educate ourselves about what he or she (returning military member) has been through," Townsend said. She tells the story of one woman who was upset that her husband had been driving so erratically after he got home from Iraq. Townsend showed the woman a video of what it was like to drive in Iraq, and the woman immediately had a better understanding of why her husband had been so aggressive behind the wheel.
Sometimes, you assume you know what your spouse is dealing with because you have heard stories about what happens in Iraq or Afghanistan, but what he or she experienced may be completely different. "I have seen a lot of spouses have ‘a-ha' moments when I explain something about the other spouse's deployment experience."
Townsend added that a lot of service members don't want to share traumatic memories with their spouses, since they may return to the front lines.
3. Make time as a couple. Sure, therapists tell couples this all the time, but it's especially important that any couple who has been through a trauma make a special effort to make time for each other. Remember why you fell in love in the first place! "That means being with each other without any electronic devices," Townsend said. "Remember the good things about your relationship. It's a great time to focus on what is good in your life."
4. Have your own support group. It's important to have support outside of your family. "Support groups let you know that you are not alone in [your experience] and what you are seeing is normal adjustment," Townsend said. If you are on a military base, reach out to whichever community feels most comfortable for you. Perhaps you'd prefer a group of other spouses rather than a military chaplain, or maybe the opposite is true. There are likely a lot of resources on your installation. If you are not in contact with other military families, look in your community for nonprofit organizations or some other source of support. Townsend recommends a website called www.notalone.com, which has online and face-to-face support groups.
5. Avoid one-upping each other. Townsend said that sometimes couples fall into the trap of "one-upping" each other. Sure, the person deployed faced challenges, but so did the person at home who was taking care of things by him or herself. "There were sacrifices made at both ends, and it's important to remember not to compare."
6. You can't fight fire with fire. If your partner does have PTSD and experiences a flashback, it's important that you try not to fight it. "Just make sure you are in a safe [environment]. Some people will zone out. Other people may run."
Fortunately, PTSD is a treatable condition, and post-deployment stress gets better with time. Don't lose hope if times are difficult, and always remember to reach out to family and friends. Let them know your need for support has not disappeared just because your family member has returned.