December 26th, 2018 | BY: Allegra Chaney

Caregiver PTSD: Can Caregiving Lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Dear Allegra,

Over the past seven years, I was the primary caregiver for my father who had Alzheimer’s disease. At the time of his diagnosis, I had no real knowledge of the disease or the toll it would ultimately take on me. Watching my father’s decline was just heartbreaking.

As my Dad’s illness progressed, it became an around-the-clock role. He experienced periods of paranoia and agitation, and we were constantly on guard to make sure he didn’t wander away.

While I am glad I was able to care for my father through the end of his life, I am mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. My husband thinks I might have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a serious case of caregiver burnout. He says I need to see a professional for help.

Is there such a thing as PTSD for caregivers? I somehow associate post-traumatic stress disorder with military personnel who have been to war.

Any insight would be much appreciated.

Cindy

Caregiver PTSD and Caregiver Burnout

Dear Cindy,

To quickly answer your question, yes caregivers can definitely develop PTSD. Like you, many people associate post-traumatic stress disorder with active-duty military personnel or veterans. The truth is, anyone who has gone through a trauma can develop it.

By definition, PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops as the result of a trauma. That means people who’ve experienced traumas, such as a car accident, a violent crime, or a natural disaster, can develop PTSD. Caregivers can also be included in this description.

In addition to feeling overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving, watching a loved one’s health decline is traumatic. It only makes sense that family caregivers could develop PTSD.

What Are the Symptoms of Caregiver PTSD?

There are multiple symptoms associated with PTSD:

  • Increased Anxiety or Panic Attacks: Anxiety, fear, and guilt are common emotions shared by caregivers. When anxiety increases or leads to panic attacks, medical intervention may be required.
  • Reliving the Trauma: People suffering from PTSD often experience flashbacks. For veterans and military members, it might be a flashback to something that happened during their service. For caregivers, it could be a traumatic day. Your father’s wandering might trigger a flashback to a day when he went missing.
  • Withdrawing from Loved Ones: A caregiver experiencing PTSD might find themselves becoming less interested in spending time with friends and family. Guilt, fear, anxiety, and stress may lead someone with PTSD to want to be alone. Unfortunately, suicidal thoughts can also develop.
  • Increased Physical Pain: Caregivers who have PTSD might experience an increase in aches and pains. Headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue are just a few signs of caregiver PTSD.

If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, your husband might be right. Consider seeing a healthcare professional who can help determine a course of treatment and connect you with PTSD caregiver support.

At a minimum, it sounds like it’s time for you to care for yourself. Seven years is a long time to be a family caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

Kind regards,

Allegra