How to Recognize PTSD in Your Spouse

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(Jacob Derry/DVIDS)

With the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it can be hard to know when your partner is struggling. In our daily interactions as couples, we sometimes misunderstand each other, tensions arise and we fight. Then, we withdraw from each other. This is a normal interaction between spouses, right? Not always. Perhaps the tension you feel is because your partner is feeling the effects of PTSD.

It is not always easy to figure out if someone has PTSD, but there are some signs that can clue you in. In some cases it can be very obvious. For instance, if your service member returns from a deployment and is still having difficulty falling asleep, wakes up in a cold sweat and punches at an imaginary foe, months after he or she returns, PTSD  may be the culprit.

In other cases, the signs might not be as obvious. Your partner could gradually withdraw from activities and people he otherwise enjoyed. You might notice him having nightmares and difficulty falling asleep. He might feel emotionally numb and could appear anxious, worried, angry or moody. When the symptoms are milder it can be difficult to tell the difference between everyday stress and PTSD.

Here’s the main difference: everyday stress doesn’t last long. Your partner may feel out of sorts, anxious and have trouble sleeping because of stress in his or her life, problems at work, or in a relationship. The stress is temporary. The stress resolves and doesn’t affect everyday life in a significant way. It also may not follow a particularly traumatic event. This is not the case with PTSD. PTSD symptoms continue for longer than the average stress episode.

Signs to Watch

In most cases, PTSD sets in after a traumatic event has taken place, such as the violent death of a friend or family member, combat experience, or a natural disaster. It also lasts. It doesn’t just go away, and it affects their everyday life. You may notice your partner has recurring nightmares or thoughts about a traumatic event. You may see trouble sleeping and eating, or have a marked increase in anxiety and fear.

Your partner may be on edge, easily startled and overly alert. At other times he could appear depressed, with a low energy level, memory loss and a lack of focus. He may have difficulty making decisions, and avoid people, places or activities that would normally make your spouse happy. You may suddenly feel like you are walking on egg shells, afraid you might "set him off." You begin to worry that your partner is no longer himself. He may be suffering from PTSD, and it is not his fault, nor is it your fault, but he does need help.

Here is a list of symptoms to look for in your spouse or partner which may indicate they have PTSD:

  • Intrusive memories
  • Flashbacks
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Intense distress or irritability
  • Physical reactions such as rapid breathing, sweating, or nausea, when remembering or being reminded of the trauma
  • Avoidance
  • Feeling emotionally detached from others
  • Emotional numbness
  • Experiencing hopelessness about the future
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Arousal or anxiety symptoms
  • Bouts of moodiness or anger
  • Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
  • A sense of being "on alert" or "on guard" (hypervigilance)
  • Developing a destructive addiction
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you suspect that a loved one has PTSD, it’s important to seek help right away. The sooner PTSD is treated, the easier it is to overcome. PTSD can interfere with your partner’s entire life, health, relationships and work. You can take a free anonymous screening on behalf of your partner online.

If your partner is reluctant to seek treatment, you can find support for yourself in how to help your partner too.

In this month where relationships are the focus, take an inventory of your relationship. Is your spouse experiencing any of the above symptoms? If so, contact a mental health provider in your area for an assessment, diagnosis and plan. If your spouse is actively suicidal, get help right away. And remember, you are not alone. Help is out there for you and your spouse so that you can have a happier and healthier relationship.

If you feel you or your partner are currently suffering from PTSD, contact a mental health professional or, if you need someone to talk to, call the Military Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and press 1.

Ingrid Herrera-Yee is a military researcher, clinical psychologist, educator, advocate, writer, speaker and military spouse.

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