Can caregivers suffer from PTSD?
Watching a loved one’s diminishing health slowly work towards eventual death can be an emotionally draining experience for many family caregivers. And once the loved one has passed, is it possible for a caregiver to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? According to a recent article in The New York Times, research on this topic is minimal, only suggesting it’s usually overlooked or discounted (however, several experts do agree that psychological trauma can be caused by the caregiving experience).
Clinical psychologist Barry Jacobs, author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers, told the newspaper that he often sees caregivers struggling with bothersome thoughts and memories months to years after their loved one has died. Some of these thoughts — flashbacks, anxiety, guilt, depression, apathy, tension and more — are all symptoms associated with PTSD, although one or more symptoms does not prove someone has the condition. Rather, that’s up to experts to decide. Even so, Jacobs said these issues are a very common problem for caregivers.
Dolores Gallagher-Thompas, professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, told the Times that there is little evidence that caregiving, at least on its own, causes post-traumatic stress. Even so, if a caregiver is vulnerable for another reason, like living through a previous life-changing tragedy, it could activate a response similar to PTSD.
“When something happens that the individual perceives and reacts to as a tremendous stressor,” Gallagher-Thompson told the Times, ”that can intensify and bring back to the forefront of consciousness memories that were traumatic.”
Regardless of whether or not a person is actually suffering from PTSD, the fact remains that many caregivers experience overwhelming stress that feels like the disorder. That’s why it’s important for caregivers who are suffering to seek treatment. It may be a hard road ahead, but with the right professional help and support network, recovery is possible. And hopefully their doctors will document these cases, shedding some more light on this often-overlooked subject.
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