Military Families and PTSD

Updated: June 25, 2020
In this Article

    The Department of Veterans Affairs official site describes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an anxiety disorder associated with an overactive fight or flight response. The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as a mental health condition “triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.”

    What do military family members need to understand about post-traumatic stress disorder to be as fully supportive and helpful as possible? There are several major factors to keep in mind. But the first and foremost thing to be concerned with is that the person experiencing PTSD receives professional help and does not try to manage or cope without doing so.

    Trying to cope with PTSD without a professional’s help is a huge mistake. A trained professional can offer insights and perspective. They make it possible for the patient to receive medication that can dramatically improve certain problems associated with anxiety disorders in general where appropriate to use.

    What Military Spouses and Children Should Know About Seeking Help for PTSD

    Over the years, military officials have tried to destigmatize getting professional help for mental health issues, especially those connected with military service. In spite of this, it can be human nature to fear things we don’t understand.

    And some of the symptoms of PTSD are so commonly misinterpreted, misunderstood, or simply not acknowledged. They may be part of a bigger problem that seeking help can feel “unnecessary” even though the problems are intense. They are sometimes identified as something other than a symptom of the condition.

    Some people experiencing PTSD don’t understand what’s happening to them when symptoms appear. They may feel the need to withdraw, or have temper flare-ups for no good reason, anger management issues in general, nightmares, flashbacks, etc.

    It’s no surprise that the members of a military family would have a difficult time looking at certain PTSD symptoms objectively when the sufferer seems unreachable, when they lash out or withdraw, etc. But these behaviors are symptomatic of PTSD. Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, but a significant number of people who experience trauma are at risk.

    Sometimes arriving at the conclusion that help is needed is the hardest part. It can be difficult to know what PTSD symptoms are, what they mean, and how to properly manage them, or provide support for those who are trying to manage the symptoms properly.

    PTSD Symptoms

    What kinds of behaviors are we talking about when discussing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that can be misdiagnosed for other things?

    • Flashbacks
    • Nightmares
    • Prolonged feelings of being on edge
    • Avoiding people and places
    • Anger, lashing out, inability to control anger
    • Anxiety
    • Grief
    • Feelings of isolation
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Physical reactions such as a racing heartbeat

    Notice that all of these symptoms are not just present in other mental health issues. They are also non-specific and none of them are unique to any one condition. That is one reason why PTSD sometimes fails to be recognized for what it is. The symptoms may manifest themselves as things easily confused with bad behavior, selfishness, insensitivity, etc.

    PTSD Triggers

    Ever see a social media meme that carries a statement like “trigger warning”? Some deride this figure of speech as being overly sensitive to too “politically correct.” But ask any medical professional with experience in mental health issues, you soon learn that triggers are a major factor in conditions like PTSD.


    Triggers are things that remind one of traumatic events. Especially where PTSD is concerned, triggers can make existing symptoms worse or bring out new symptoms not yet experienced. A trigger can be anything that acts as a trauma reminder.

    That includes smells, sounds, or situations that to family and friends may seem almost random when they affect the person experiencing PTSD. Something as innocuous as a minor family argument, a loud noise, or any other stimulus that serves as a trigger can bring a great deal of suffering under the wrong conditions.

    Someone suffering from PTSD may react to such things in a way that seems disproportionate or inappropriate. But since post-traumatic stress disorder involves the fight-or-flight reaction, those reactions aren’t necessarily easily controlled.

    Those who want to help and support a PTSD victim should understand and anticipate this. Giving the benefit of the doubt in such cases will go a long way.

    The VA official site reminds military families of this. They point out that PTSD is deeply associated with “innate biological and physiological mechanisms. It is not the result of moral failing or weakness in character.” This is even the case when PTSD manifests itself in ways typically associated with moral failings or personality flaws such as substance abuse or alcoholism.

    PTSD Affects The Entire Family

    When a loved one withdraws, is frequently angry or easily angered, flies into rages or quiet depressions, or any other manifestation of PTSD symptoms, the entire family is affected. You may find that counseling is needed not just for your loved one, but for those dealing with the loved one’s condition.

    Family counseling, marriage therapy, and other professional help is crucial for any military family confronting post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Family and Caregivers Need Help, Too

    Having a loved one who suffers from PTSD symptoms is stressful, but in some cases that stress can complicate a caregiver’s own needs and/or mental health issues. You may not recognize how stressful it can be to support a loved one with PTSD or any mental health concern. But rest assured, these circumstances can and often do require loved ones and caregivers to seek out their own support and treatment.

    The stress of these circumstances may not grow to be “too much” at first. But over time it may be necessary to seek counseling, respite care to give a break to the primary caregiver, or take down time to recover from the exhausting job of helping someone with PTSD get their own life back on track.

    It’s easy to neglect your own physical and emotional well-being when caring for another. Don’t make the mistake of believing that you are not subject to depression, anxiety, or other issues because of the demands on you as the loved one. No one is immune to burnout, frustration, anger, or other strong emotions and reactions related to caring for the family member with PTSD.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team