Supporting a Spouse With PTSD

Author: IAFF Center of Excellence Staff

June 21, 2019

Married life with a fire fighter or paramedic can be a challenge. Your spouse may miss family functions and work late during long shifts. Close calls and difficult moments come with the job. As the spouse of a fire fighter, you may be prepared for these situations, but maybe not the mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that can develop after years on the job.



PTSD affects a significant number of fire fighters and EMS personnel. According to a study published by the Journal of Occupational Health, nearly 20% of fire fighters and paramedics develop PTSD at some point in their career. In the face of PTSD, it’s easy to feel hopeless. You may feel powerless to help the person you love most. Don’t lose hope. PTSD is a treatable condition. There are many ways to support your spouse through their recovery. It is a lifelong process, but you and your family can find a new normal.

Understand the Symptoms

You may find it difficult to understand what your partner is going through. You don’t struggle with PTSD or share the same type of experiences. However, you can still provide support and empathy when your significant other needs it most. Learning about the condition can help you and your partner speak the same language and help you learn and understand what to expect. PTSD develops after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event and can also develop after years of exposure to traumatic events. Symptoms usually begin within three months of the event. For some, symptoms may emerge up to six months later. PTSD is a personal condition. The symptoms and triggers can vary significantly from person to person. PTSD symptoms are divided into four categories. These categories include arousal and reactivity, cognition and mood, avoidance and re-experiencing.

Arousal and Reactivity

These symptoms are related to an overstimulated nervous system. Unlike most other PTSD symptoms, symptoms are usually present on a regular basis and include:
  • Feeling on edge
  • Feeling angry or short-tempered
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Sleep problems

Cognition and Mood

These changes affect your thought patterns and emotions and include:
  • Memory loss (usually about the traumatic event)
  • Intense feelings of shame or guilt
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Increasingly negative thoughts about the world and oneself

Avoidance

When you struggle with PTSD, you may attempt to avoid anything associated with the traumatic event. These can lead you to avoid people, places, events, objects, thoughts and feelings that remind you of your traumatic experience.

Re-Experiencing

Symptoms of PTSD intrude on daily life. A memory or reliving of the experience is part of this symptom group, which also includes:
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event
  • Physical symptoms when recalling the event (sweat, trembling, etc.)

Take Time to Listen

Many people hesitate to ask their partner about their struggle with PTSD. You may be afraid of bringing up painful memories. You might even be concerned you will trigger PTSD symptoms. However, talking things over can be therapeutic for your partner. If your spouse is willing, allow him or her to share experiences and feelings with you. Take the time to listen. Don’t tell your partner that you understand what he or she is going through because you don’t. Simply make it clear that you hear him or her and that it’s OK to not be OK.

Support Your Spouse Without Enabling

It’s crucial to support your spouse on the good and the bad days. It’s also important not to cross the line and enable self-sabotaging behavior. Make sure your partner is getting the help he or she needs. This may involve going to regular therapy sessions, taking medications or going to group counseling. Be aware of signs that your spouse may self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. This will only make your partner’s condition worse. It will also extend the time it takes to heal from PTSD symptoms.

Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself

If your spouse struggles with PTSD, you may do most daily tasks at home. You may need to shoulder much of the parenting as well. It’s easy to feel burnt out when taking on so many responsibilities. Try not to lose sight of your own needs. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and relaxation. Eat three healthy meals a day and drink plenty of water. Make time for physical activity to help your mood and sleep. Don’t be afraid to seek therapy for yourself as well. If your partner struggles with PTSD, it’s crucial that he or she gets professional care. Fortunately, the IAFF Center of Excellence can help. With treatment designed by fire fighters for fire fighters, our facility has the resources your loved one needs to begin the journey to recovery. Reach out today for more information.  

Sources IAFF. “PTSD and Cancer: Growing Number of Fire Fighters and Paramedics at Risk.” August 16, 2016. Accessed April 3, 2019. National Institute of Mental Health. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Accessed April 3, 2019.
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