A recent doctoral thesis by University of Utah graduate student Catherine Caska suggests that the negative health effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, spill over into spouses, too.
The study compared emotional and physiological responses of two groups of military veterans and their partners during and after engaging in a “disagreement task” set in a clinically-monitored environment. The veterans in one group had been diagnosed with PTSD, and those in the control group had not.
According to the researchers, the most remarkable finding was that the partners of veterans with PTSD showed even greater increases in blood pressure during conflict than the veterans with PTSD themselves, suggesting that these partners may be at similar, if not greater, risk for health consequences from relationship conflict and PTSD as the veterans.
The study found that female spouses and other partners of veterans who have PTSD had even bigger blood pressure spikes than the vets. While the fact that those diagnosed with PTSD are liable to have significant blood pressure increases during periods of stress has been long established, Caska’s study was the first to look specifically at the experiences of spouses.
“Overall, we found that couples where the veteran has PTSD showed greater emotional and relationship distress than military couples without PTSD,” said Caska. “The couples affected by PTSD also showed greater increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and other indicators of cardiovascular health risk in response to the relationship conflict. Veterans with PTSD showed larger increases in blood pressure in response to the relationship conflict discussion than did veterans without PTSD. These responses and the greater emotional reactions and overall relationship distress reported by veterans with PTSD could contribute to the increased risk of cardiovascular disease previously found to be associated with PTSD.”
Caska is no newcomer to the study of the unique mental health problems and needs of military families. In 2009, she authored a thesis paper called Caregiver Burden in Spouses of National Guard/Reserve Service Members Deployed During Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.
Caska also co-wrote a chapter in the book Risk and Resilience in U.S. Military Families entitled “Distress in in Spouses of Combat Veterans with PTSD: The Importance of Interpersonally-Based Cognitions and Behaviors.”
“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 Caska. “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.”