Vicarious PTSD, also know as Secondary PTSD, happens to the caregiver of the person suffering symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In my personal experience, I went on auto pilot when my husband was diagnosed. We had known there was a problem manifesting but we didn’t have a clue as to what was in store for us. When he was under the care of a psychiatric provider she made no mention of PTSD. Just anxiety disorders. He was still functional at work yet heavily medicated. Then one day he went into complete psychosis and it lasted for two entire weeks. He doesn’t remember anything that happened during that week period of time. But I remember every scary minute of it.
I made the decision for our family to move to the other side of the State where his family was. I knew in my heart that I had no idea what I was up against but I knew that I would need a support system. No one understands PTSD like those who are actually exposed to its symptoms. This could be a husband a wife or a mother and their child. In my case this is about my husband who suffers from PTSD symptoms and myself – the caregiver.
PTSD Experts Don’t Warn You About Vicarious PTSD
Health care professionals do not warn you about the possible development of vicarious PTSD. After moving across the State it was just my husband and I cooped up in a temporary apartment. We were surrounded by the walls that confined us and the severe PTSD episodes that seemed to be non-stop at that point. When a caregiver takes care of someone with PTSD around the clock, they too can develop a form of PTSD. Vicarious PTSD is also known a secondary PTSD. Vicarious PTSD is a bit different but share some of the same symptoms of your loved ones’. I would have higher levels of anxiety at first and then flip out like a person with a lot of rage from a PTSD episode.
These episodes expose you to rage, verbal, emotional, and times, physical abuse. These abusive behaviors derive from their spouse’s symptoms and are hard to endure for long periods. My husband never got physically violent with me nor the children but the verbal and emotional abuse was pretty severe. What happens is your loved one goes into a PTSD state of mind, it’s like a monster buries the real person deep down and takes over their mind and body. The worst part is they do not remember anything said or done during an episode but you sure do. It still happens to you. But in his or her mind, it didn’t happen because they can’t remember.
Vicarious PTSD -Months of PTSD Behavior
When anyone is experiencing their loved one’s PTSD driven behavior for long periods of time it causes them their very own psychological damage. In my home, PTSD episodes would last from 24 hours to several days before they would stop. When I say 24 hours, I really mean 24 hours around the clock. I was also working to bring in an income for our family and my husband’s PTSD symptoms kept me up all night. That does not make for a productive employee. Especially if this is going on every weekend.
I developed Vicarious PTSD because of all the traumatic PTSD episodes that I encountered (lived in). The difference between my PTSD and my husbands’ is that his has multiple triggers that will bring on an episode quickly. I only have one trigger. My trigger is his PTSD. When I see his symptoms surfacing and his mental state going into a whirl wind it scares me. My anxiety rises, and there I go, into a full blown PTSD episode of my own. Our situation became very toxic for each other and for our environment.
There is help for caregivers
When I got to my breaking point which was a little over a year into our journey with PTSD, I knew I could no longer do this on my own. I went and sought out my own therapist. She educated me so much on PTSD and Vicarious PTSD. I really have to give well deserved thanks to her because she literally saved my life and most likely my marriage. Caring for someone else can bring you to burnout, feeling spread too thin, and even resentment. Finding your own support group is just as important as your loved one’s need for care is.
If your living with someone who suffers from the symptoms of PTSD, be sure to care for yourself first and find a therapist who specializes in Trauma and PTSD.
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allison s says
I have recently been diagnosed with PTSD, and looking back, I have had symptoms of PTSD in the past, but had therapy, did my homework and thought I was going to be OK. Anyway, I can see that I began to develop symptoms in January 2021, and perhaps sooner, while working bedside as an RN. My husband was telling me about the way I was behaving all along and I couldn’t hear him. I didn’t understand what was happening, or why he was wavering in his commitment to be my husband for life. Reading this blog helped me understand what secondary PTSD might look like. I am going to residential treatment for 9 weeks, how best can I support my husband in his recovery and healing while I am away? I want us to be amazing again. xoxo Allison
I am deeply in love with a man who has PTSD. He just recently started going to therapy and seeing a Psychiatrist. I am divorced with 3 young children. He has 3 grown children and 1 young daughter. Our relationship is getting pretty serious. I do worry about his PTSD causing anxiety in me. We communicate very well together. Most days life is good and we laugh and love and share and talk. We both are deep thinkers and big dreamers. He is very successful in his career. I think his job gives him confidence and makes him feel like he is contributing to society in a positive way. My bond with him is extremely strong. And he is very supportive and a very good listener. He does experience nightmares. The nightmares are lessening in intensity since he started therapy. He does have anxiety attacks that are triggered by stress and last all day. I’m hoping him going to therapy and using medication will help him. We don’t argue often but when we do it’s very hard for him to admit he is wrong and he becomes extremely defensive and dismissive of my feelings. We both believe in God and have a strong spiritual foundation. I proceed with caution regarding marriage. Blending families is hard enough and adding PTSD on top of that seems very scary to me. He is working on himself. And I’m proud of him. I worry my extended family wont accept him. I worry his PTSD episodes will negatively affect my children. I proceed with caution and prayer. Thank you for letting me share.
This article has been extremely helpful and a huge eye opener for me! I met the most wonderful man 2 months ago he was sent from God. Now that we have settled into our life We started arguing more and more and I couldn’t understand why or where it was coming from. He could go from sweet happy and so caring to nasty angry and vicious. Now I have hope that I don’t have to walk away from this man I love.
Kathleen Kampa says
My husband is a Viet Nam vet, with severe PTSD. First it was alcohol, then drugs. I can remember him chasing me down the street with my son (now 42 ). Breaking things, didn’t matter to him when he got this way. It was every weekend or holiday. He never missed work or took a day off. As long as he was working he seemed fine. I tried support groups, that didn’t work out to well because of the kids. I was wondering if there has been any other wife to file for help through the VA?
PTSD Wifey says
Hi Mrs. Mossor,
Thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment on our website. Especially, such wonderful questions that will be helpful to many who read this. First off I’d like to emphasize you’re not alone in your battle. Many Veterans and supportive spouses have reached out with the same concerns regarding lack of care from the VA. This is exactly why I’ve started this website and working on launching our non-profit. This way, families like yours can access & afford private care; be in control of who’s helping you through the rough times.
To answer your question about your kiddos, yes!They showed signs of poor behavior and attitudes. More than that though, there were other issues caused by their exposure to PTSD going untreated.
In my specific situation my youngest child was 4 years old and had trouble sleeping, was scared and uneasy most of the time. She fought me on everything. When I started therapy for myself I learned that these behaviors are derivative of a child dealing with anxiety because of not understanding why they feel the way they do. For instance, if their environment is unstable due to intense and toxic symptoms, creating severe, uncertainty, and worry, they will act out. Some using abrasive & abusive behavior towards the parent.
What I did, was set my children down separately due to the significant age difference, 4 years old and 13 years old, and explain to them what was going on with my spouse. Additionally I explained what PTSD was in a way that you can comprehend and what we were doing about it to help the situation and what they could do to be good support systems as well. After this conversations, the children were able to cope much better and felt they had a voice and could express their own concerns. We all work together to improve the situation. The thing is that we did it as a family. In turn, bringing us closer on a different level. Instead of the kids walking around anxious with uncertainty, Mom stressed to the max, and Dad struggling with symptoms on a daily basis.
He has got to get into therapy so he can begin feeling better. That’s where the family healing begins.
Rachel Mossor says
My husband is a veteran of Dessert Storm with suffering from ptsd. He has seeked out help multiple times before but denied in multiple VA clinics and VA Hospitals. He has been previously married. We have been now together for 11 years married for 4 of them, and have 4 kids. My kids have been effected by it and are expressing it in bad behaviors, morely the eldest but younger ones are starting. Started getting help for my eldest and myself just a regular counselor and caseworker. Did your two kids show any signs of being effected in anyway with using the wrong behavior when feeling angry or mad and sad? And I read your other post and I know the importance of selfcare, but I literally am caretaker 24/7 to 5 people any advice on how to do that? Thank you and am Thankful I found your blog and another woman who feels the same about PTSD as I do in not having to be another divorce statistic.
L. Thomas says
I am 100 percent permanent and totally disabled. Even been rated disabled by SSDI. My experiences are from Vietnam. My wife used to harbor a lot of resentment and animosity toward me for my actions. I went through like almost 80 jobs before seeking help from the VA at age 46. She then went to counseling with me and it was a real eye opener for her. She learned to let go of her anger and realize what was happening. She also learned to walk away from my anger realizing it was not her fault. Therapy was a life saver and I recommend it strongly for wives. Trust me they suffer right alongside the Veteran and of course it could be the husband suffering alongside a wife who has ptsd as well.
Therapy works when it comes to PTSD. I went to therapy every week for 10 years. Went to two different PTSD clinics. One in Denver, CO and the Other I Palo Alto, CA. Both of which helped me to realize I am not the only one who feels, acts and talks like I do. Once I came to that realization then I was open for being treated and no longer felt like I was crazy and an anomaly or outlier in life.
Vinit Kumar says