How families are impacted

If your family member or friend is affected by PTSD, it can impact everyone in your family and/or friend circle. It is important to be aware of the potential impacts, so that you can better understand what you are experiencing, and seek additional support, if needed.

Your experience may differ from others in your family and/or friend circle– there is no “right” experience. This section focuses on the family more broadly. Learn more about specific impacts on children.

High or increased stress levels

Your family member or friend’s symptoms can create behaviours that you don’t understand or recognize, and situations that you find stressful and difficult to deal with. You may feel additional responsibilities on your shoulders and sense that your relationship with your family member or friend is different or strained. Being around someone who is often reactive and on edge can be stressful. It may also feel scary if your family member or friend becomes aggressive towards you or others. Long-term exposure to stress can also have consequences for your health and well-being.

Relationship, family, and/or friendship strain

Your family member or friend’s symptoms can make it challenging for them to maintain their connection to and relationships with others. Over time, tension can build up in your family and/or friend circle, leading to relationship strain. You may feel like you are walking on eggshells. You may also feel out of touch with or distanced from your family member or friend. Your friendship circle may become smaller. These changes can be especially tough for children to understand and may lead them to question their parent’s love for them or to act out. Reaching out for support can help you learn how to navigate any strain you feel within your relationship, family, and/or friend circle.
(Canadian Forces Members Assistance Program (CFMAP) 1-800-268-7708)

Changes in your usual roles, responsibilities, and participation in activities

Life as you know it may be disrupted. Your usual roles and responsibilities may shift around as you find ways to support your family member or friend. For example, you may notice children taking on a parenting or caregiving role. Growing up too quickly can have negative impacts on your child or youth, including mental, emotional and behavioural issues during their development as well as later on in their life.

You and other family members and/or friends may also begin to avoid certain activities, especially if they trigger or worsen your family member or friend’s symptoms or cause distress.

Negative thoughts or feelings about your situation

You may begin to notice negative changes in your own thoughts and feelings, such as sadness, loss, anger, and guilt.  You may grieve the loss of what you had envisioned for the future. It is okay to feel upset about the changes in your family member or friend, in your relationship, and in your family and/or friend circle. There are supports available to help you to navigate your experience and redirect to a positive path in life, such as gaining a greater insight into and navigating your feelings, returning to work, or having improved personal relationships.

Burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma

Burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma are distinct but related concepts. Although they can each emerge through the experience of you supporting your family member or friend with PTSD, they differ in how they come about and their impact on you.

If you are unable to take time to look after your own needs, you may gradually begin to feel worn out (mentally and physically) as a result of frequent exposure to stressful and emotionally challenging situations. This is burnout, which is a diagnosable condition. High levels of stress and burnout can also contribute to other health problems. For example, you may start to smoke or drink more than usual or notice negative changes to your diet or exercise routine. Look out for any changes in your own health and well-being as well as those of family members and friends.

Constant exposure to emotionally challenging and stressful situations brought on by your family member or friend’s condition can also deplete your empathy supply over time, resulting in an experience known as compassion fatigue. You may notice that it becomes difficult for you to “put yourself in their shoes” and show understanding, even if you were unable to before. It is important to be aware of your daily compassion “levels” and prioritize self-care. There is also support available to help you navigate the experience of supporting someone with post-traumatic mental health issues and reduce compassion fatigue.

Lastly, you may find yourself deeply impacted by your family member or friend’s trauma, to the extent that you begin to show symptoms similar to those with PTSD – this is often called vicarious or secondary traumatic stress. This often comes on quickly. You may start to notice behaviours in yourself similar to someone diagnosed with PTSD. For example, if your family member or friend is often checking for threats and is easily startled, you or others in your friend and family circle may become more vigilant and sensitive to noise as well. Children can also show signs of secondary trauma.

There are resources to help with your experience. Visit our resources page to find out more.

Enhanced understanding and awareness

Living with and supporting someone with PTSD can be difficult, but the experience can also help to build strong families and friends who are resilient, adaptable, and empathetic. You and your family and/or friend circle can become more aware and informed about PTSD and how best to respond and cope with challenging situations. For example, you can learn better ways to communicate with one another, or become better at prioritizing or learning how to manage your own expectations. This can in turn improve your ability to adapt in the face of many difficult or stressful life events.

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