Names have been changed to protect clients' identities.
"We were so in love," Tanya shared, softly touching her 7-month pregnant belly, "But the shock of this pregnancy after our miscarriage just did something to me in that moment." Her voice shook as she shared the final events that ended her 1-year engagement. She had taken a pregnancy test one morning and, after seeing the positive result, she burst into tears. She said her partner seemed dismissive, causing her to feel suddenly abandoned. "I felt backed into a corner with a pounding heart and sweating palms. I felt myself start to dissociate, I panicked. I felt erratic, irrational, but I had to leave. I just had to. Steve couldn't comfort me. He didn't know how to.” She went on to share how she missed him, but how their relationship was over for good. She cried, I cried with her.
Her story affected me deeply. I could relate to the sensations she described, and the grief of losing a cherished relationship. Tanya's reaction isn't an uncommon one for those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hyper-reactivity to stimuli is one of the many ways symptoms can manifest. The disorder can deeply affect our closest, happiest relationships, even permanently ending them.
Tanya is a doula client of mine who now shares her story about the devastating effects PTSD has had on her relationships. And, together, we are exploring the world of trauma-informed doula care.
"Many individuals experience trauma during their lifetimes. Although many people exposed to trauma demonstrate few or no lingering symptoms, those individuals who have experienced repeated, chronic, or multiple traumas are more likely to exhibit pronounced symptoms and consequences, including substance abuse, mental illness, and health problems."
No one wants to live life feeling this way. Especially those of us who are ambitious, goal-oriented people motivated to live happy and healthy lives. We all want secure and stable relationships. I also research and publish information on this topic because, as a doula, I work closely with families to help them navigate these issues throughout pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. It's a passion of mine. Know better, do better. We can do it together.
So, with her consent, I share a piece of Tanya's story in hopes of helping others find a working course of action, for themselves and for those they love. There are so many resources available for folks with PTSD: medications, specialists, therapies, and literature. For those who are therapy-oriented like I am, techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are incredibly effective and time-efficient. (I also provide resources at the end of the article for folks who do not have PTSD, but would like to better support those in their lives who do)
In order to fully support an intimate partner, it's important to understand how a negative reaction to their symptoms can cause a downward domino effect. Many supporting folks often go to great lengths to avoid situations that trigger flashbacks in their partner. This can be a lot of work. It can leave them feeling exhausted, hurt, or defensive. Some may feel impatient because their partner has not processed the traumas, or depressed because they can't understand the complexity of the issue. They may become angry or distant toward their partner, as well as tense or feel like they are walking on eggshells. A simple communication breakdown can perpetuate the cycle, but there are things we can do to change the course of our lives for the better. And we should. We should strive to continue to get better every day, because everyone benefits from a happy, healthy social network.
It’s hard not to take the symptoms of PTSD personally, but it’s important to remember that a person with PTSD may not always have control over their behavior. Your loved one’s nervous system is “stuck” in a state of constant alert, making them continually feel vulnerable and unsafe. This can lead to anger, irritability, depression, mistrust, and other PTSD symptoms that your loved one can’t simply choose to turn off. With the right support from friends and family, though, your loved one’s nervous system can become "unstuck" and he or she can finally move on from the traumatic event. (helpguide.org)
Try to understand the symptoms and causes. According to The National Center for PTSD, “For people with PTSD, it is very common for their memories to be triggered by sights, sounds, smells or even feelings that they experience. These triggers can bring back memories of the trauma and cause intense emotional and physical reactions, such as raised heart rate, sweating and muscle tension. They may have less interest in social or sexual activities. Because survivors feel irritable, on guard, jumpy, worried, or nervous, they may not be able to relax or be intimate."
"The symptoms of PTSD can cause problems with trust, closeness, communication, and problem solving. These problems may affect the way the survivor acts with others. In turn, the way a loved one responds to him or her affects the trauma survivor. A circular pattern can develop that may sometimes harm relationships."
"Unless you live with post-trauatic stress disorder, it can be hard to understand why an event from the past can still affect someone now. You may wonder why they just can’t “forget about it,” or get confused when seemingly low-stress situations evoke a strong reaction. But for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, their brain actually changes. They don’t need to be told to forget about their trauma — what they need is support and understanding." -Sarah Schuster
For those of you who have partners (or loved ones) with PTSD, there are phenomenal resources for you, too. You can be an empowered support-person. You can respond and approach situations in a way that will diffuse rather than escalate. There are plenty of ways to support your partner on their journey toward healing. It’s a process that requires patience and attentive listening.
So, what are you waiting for? Hop on a search engine and find resources near you. Not only will it help your loved one feel better by having the support they need from you, but you'll learn a lot about yourself in the process. You will feel immensely better just having the right set of tools to work with, and likely a new sense of hope.