Monday, February 23, 2009

Coping with the PTSD of Illness

In a recent post, I wrote about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and illness. Some people who experience severe stress - war, natural disaster, abuse - continue to suffer even after the trauma has stopped. They may experience PTSD symptoms -- intrusive memories, flashbacks of the events, nightmares, and sleeping difficulties. They may be hyper-alert and startle easily.

I believe serious illness can also result in a PTSD-like responses in both the ill person and the partner. Memories or flashbacks of particularly difficult, frightening, or painful moments can intrude. Both partners can be overly vigilant about the slightest symptoms and fearful of a relapse, even if the illness is in remission or the chronic symptoms are well managed.

What can a couple do to manage these PTSD-like symptoms?

  1. Talk about it with each other. Tell each other that you are worried and watchful. Talking about it won't cause a relapse to happen. If anything, it can reduce stress.
  2. Remind each other that -"That was then, and this is now." Use this phrase almost like a mantra to repeatedly remind each other that the past is past and there is no need to respond in the current situation as if the past were about to resurrect.
  3. Get some sleep. Tiredness puts us more on edge.
  4. Distract each other. When one partner starts to become fearful or worried, turn on the TV, read a book aloud to each other, go for a walk, talk about the kids or the neighbors, even pick a fight about something petty.
  5. Speak to a therapist. If you need extra help, get it. There is no need to suffer if help is available.


Maureen Hayes said...

I am so grateful you are doing this series. I find myself going through some of this as my doctor looks to lower my pain medication dosage. All of your ideas are spot on and I plan to use each of them to help me cope. Thanks for writing about real issues that we deal with as we suffer with chronic illness, but always with hope, compassion and ideas of how to deal with them concretely!

Barbara K. said...

Thanks Maureen. I am also interested in hearing what you learn as you go through your own experience. Good luck with the medication lowering!

hobbz said...

How totally true! I definately agree with you. Both my husband and I can be sent into a tailspin if one little thing starts to act up. Me especially, because I'm so scared that one symptom means the start of a flare from hell.
I love the advice and the insight in this post.
Good on you!