Janet Ryan-Newell, M.Ed.
In the last article, we examined the etiology of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and several potential predisposing factors. This week, we are going to focus on the impact of PTSD from several different perspectives. PTSD can have an enormous impact on individuals, their families, and broader society. Unsurprisingly, the most apparent and debilitating effects tend to be experienced by the individual who develops PTSD. Matthew Tull (2017), in a popular press article for Very Well Mind, explains how PTSD can significantly predispose the sufferer to developing other mental health issues including, “anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and substance use disorders”. Likewise, a person suffering from PTSD is 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than someone who does not (Tull, 2017).
The association between PTSD and the development of other mental health disorders (e.g. depression) is uncontroversial; however, PTSD can also strongly influence a person’s physical health. For instance, significant associations exist between PTSD and diabetes, obesity, heart problems, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disturbances, and sexual dysfunction (Pacella et al., 2013). Take, for example, sleep disturbances which can compound several other physical and mental symptoms. Sleep problems are one of the most reliable and complex symptoms of PTSD, but the cause of these issues is still hotly debated. Sleep problems are likely related to the nightmares/night terrors that sufferers experience and the high incidence of hyperarousal (e.g. constantly being on guard) which reduces sleep quality.
The individual impact of PTSD can be very substantial, but the family impact is also very consequential. PTSD is highly predisposing to other adverse social outcomes including unemployment and issues with schooling. Both secondary problems can exert a negative influence on family relationships. Moreover, Carlson & Ruzek (2012), writing in the National Center for PTSD, consider the mental health of a trauma sufferer’s family members. Many family members experience depression, guilt, avoidance, and anger resulting from their loved one’s trauma. For instance, Carlson & Ruzek (2012) emphasize that “family members may feel that the survivor should just ‘forget about it’ and move on with their life”. They may be angry when their loved one continues to “dwell” on the trauma. Although these attitudes are counterproductive, frustration is understandable. Likewise, if a spouse cannot hold down a job or suffers from a substance abuse issue (subsequent to trauma), family breakdown is a common outcome.
These reactions are unproductive; however, they stem (at least in part) from a failure to appreciate how insidious trauma and the symptoms of PTSD can become. Wider society can also struggle to comprehend exactly what PTSD is or how it affects the individual and their family. Jeremiah Workman (2010), in a popular blog, decries the stigma attached to PTSD. Words like ‘nutcase’ or ‘unbalanced’ or ‘disturbed’ become placeholders for people. Simple social forces like language can inadvertently push people with PTSD away from community involvement and the support that they need to get well. When the stakes are this high (i.e. factoring in rates of suicide/depression/family breakdown) – in the words of Jeremiah Workman – “the stereotype and the stigma associated with PTSD must be destroyed; there are [real] lives at stake”. Each of us should strive to use our language and empathy to help rather than hurt those who are already suffering. In the next article, we will tackle the treatment and prevention of PTSD.
- Carlson, E., & Ruzek, J. (2012). PTSD and the Family – PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treatment/family/ptsd-and-the-family.asp
- Pacella, M., Hruska, B., & Delahanty, D. (2013). The physical health consequences of PTSD and PTSD symptoms: A meta-analytic review. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 27(1), 33-46. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2012.08.004
- Tull, M. (2017). What Are the Effects of PTSD on a Person’s Everyday Life?. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-does-ptsd-affect-daily-life-2797536
- Workman, J. (2010). The Stigma of PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeremiah-workman/the-stigma-of-ptsd_b_334341.html