Caring for someone with PTSD can sometimes lead to secondary trauma.
And researchers at the University of Utah wondered just how bad that secondary trauma could be.
While completing her graduate studies, Catherine Caska Wallace, PhD and her research team studied two groups of male veterans, along with their female partners. In 32 couples, the veterans suffered from PTSD, and in the control group of 33 couples, PTSD wasn’t a factor.
The veterans in both groups had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan at least once in the past decade.
After the researchers interviewed the couples to measure PTSD, depression, marital satisfaction, and areas of disagreement, they asked the couples to undergo a brief experiment.
Researchers asked each couple to have a conversation about a current issue on which they strongly disagreed.
Before and after the conversation, researchers took physiological measurements from both partners, including blood pressure and heart rate.
Some of their findings probably weren’t surprising. Both veterans and partners in the PTSD group reported significantly higher emotional stress, measured through disaffection and disharmony. They also reported problems with frequent and intense emotional conflict.
But when they looked at the physiological measurements, researchers found something particularly interesting.
While the couples in the PTSD group showed elevated blood pressure during the conversation relative to controls, the partners of the veterans in particular showed the highest blood pressure – even compared to the veterans themselves.
It’s important to note that this study didn’t use random assignment when selecting its sample, so there’s a limit to how much we can generalize its results.
Although preliminary, this research suggests that PTSD can have far reaching and significant physiological impact even among people who don’t suffer from it.
Of course, the blood pressure finding stood alone in this study. I’d like to see more research that examines other physiological and mental factors with the partners of post-traumatic stress sufferers. If PTSD really carries significant health risks for the partners of veterans, more attention should be paid to them in future research.
If you’re interested in reading the full study, it was published in Health Psychology, Volume 33, Issue 11, pp. 1273 – 1280.
For more on working with trauma’s impact on clients, and their relationships, be sure to check out the Treating Trauma Master Series.
You’ll get insights from: Dan Siegel, MD; Pat Ogden, PhD; Allan Schore, PhD; and Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD.
Now we’d like to hear from you. What’s your experience in working with veterans, or their partners, who suffer from PTSD? Please leave a comment below.