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What to do after a traumatic event and how it can affect relationships.

A traumatic event often leaves people feeling shaken and unstable. The traumatic response and surge of adrenaline results in people becoming anxious and hypervigilant, feeling agitated or irritable, tearful and experiencing mood swings. Traumatised individuals can also become withdrawn and isolate themselves, feel as if they are different from everyone else and struggle to function properly at work, home or socially.  The trauma can be a single incident like an accident or it can occur over a longer period, even years or decades.  As such, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are diverse and affect a range of areas of functioning.

Dealing with a traumatic event means allowing the person the space to process the incident fully. It is debatable whether immediate debriefing is always the best option and sometimes it is better left for the person to decide for themselves when they feel safe and comfortable enough to talk about it. Helping your partner means giving them the space to process things on their own and being available as a supportive person when they feel they are ready. Encouraging your partner to seek help from a professional like a psychologist who has experience with trauma is highly recommended as counselling will assist them in processing the incident properly and dealing with the range of emotions and thoughts that arise as a result.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD often presents itself in the same way as an anxiety disorder or depression does and affects the person’s mood and general level of emotional and mental functioning. Those struggling with PTSD will likely find themselves feeling irritable and snapping at their partners a lot of the time. They may feel down and experience feelings of guilt and hopelessness. They may also prefer to be alone and push their partner away both physically and emotionally. As such, the PTSD reaction may take its toll on the relationship by affecting the closeness that the couple experiences.

The general level of frustration felt by both partners also increases. On the one hand, you have a partner who is feeling anxious, depressed and agitated most of the time. This partner may also feel misunderstood and different from anyone else. As a result, they may also feel frustrated that their partner isn’t able to understand what they are going through. On the other hand you have a partner who is feeling frustrated as witnessing their loved one struggle through their emotional distress and feeling helpless to get them out of their depression or anxiety. When levels of frustration increase, so, too, does the disconnect in the relationship and partners may begin to feel quite isolated from one another. Not to mention the fact that physical intimacy almost certainly goes out the window when one partner is struggling with PTSD and anxiety.

Staying connected is probably one of the hardest tasks the couple faces. Attending couples counselling sessions together can go a long way in terms of fostering and maintaining connectedness and empathy between the two. Ensuring that you still get out and have quality time together, be it a walk on the beach or a picnic on the lounge floor. Spending time having fun and ‘playing’ is a great stress relief and helps keep the couple connected.

Seek help from a support group or a psychologist for yourself as well if you are struggling to remain positive and help your partner cope.

Lisa Kunde | CFHP
Lisa Kunde

Lisa Kunde has ten years experience working as a psychologist with adults in both private and public hospital settings (oncology, palliative care, chronic pain, cardio-pulmonary, psychiatric and alcohol and other drugs units).

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