Family Members Of Combat Vets At Risk For ‘Secondary’ PTSD Symptoms

Combat veterans with PTSD often pass symptoms along to their partners, a new study finds.

Post traumatic stress disorder can be debilitating for many combat veterans, and a new study shows that vets with PTSD may not be the only one’s medically affected by the condition. A new study claims that partners and spouses of combat veterans with PTSD are at a higher risk for “secondary” PTSD symptoms — including high blood pressure and greater risk for cardiovascular disease.

The study, conducted at the University of Utah, monitored two groups of military veterans and their spouses during and after a “disagreement task” in a clinical environment. Researchers compared the emotional and physiological responses of the couples. One of the groups consisted of veterans previously diagnosed with PTSD, the other group — which served as the control group — did not have PTSD or related symptoms.

The study ultimately showed that the female partners and spouses of veterans with PTSD had even greater increased in blood pressure than the combat veterans themselves. The couples in the PTSD group also showed increased heart rates.

The findings suggest that the partners and spouses of combat veterans with PTSD are at risk for similar health-related consequences as their diagnosed partners.

PTSD is defined as an anxiety disorder that can follow a traumatic event. Almost one out of four military combat veterans returning from Irag and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD symptoms. Symptoms include avoidance, depression, isolation, hypervigilance, and constantly reliving traumatic memories in nightmares and flashbacks.

In recent years, PTSD has become and increased issue in the military. To date, more military members have died of suicide than in combat. Many of those military members suffered from PTSD.

Combat veterans with PTSD have higher levels of anger and cardiovascular reactivity to stress. The physical effects of relationship stress on vets’ partners and spouses have not been documented until now.

“We learned that couples with PTSD experience more signs of physical and emotional stress than other military couples when under a challenge to their relationship,” said Tim Smith, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, and a co-author on the study.

The study included 65 male combat veterans and their female partners. There were 32 couples in which the veterans had PTSD, and 33 couples in the control group — that is, those with no PTSD symptoms. All the veterans had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan an average of 1.5 times since 2001.

While researchers were also interested in studying female veterans with PTSD and their male partners, they did not find any who were willing to participate in the study.

Upon viewing the couples during an argument, speaking with the couples individually, and giving the veterans and their spouses questionnaires regarding their relationship, stress levels, and other signifying information, researchers found that couples with PTSD were under greater stress than those without. Couple with PTSD members also reported higher levels of emotional distance and more frequent conflict.


“The results of our study emphasize the potential role of relationship difficulties in the increased risk for cardiovascular disease among Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans with PTSD,” concludes Catherine Caska of the Univeristy of Utah.

“These data also suggest the possibility of similar heath risks for their partners. These findings could have important implications for the focus of treatments and services for this population, and further drives home the need to continue to focus research and resources on understanding and better serving military families.”

The Partners of Veterans program has veteran services that are designed to help couples suffering from the negative effects of PTSD.

[Image via Shutterstock]