Caregivers, are you experiencing any of the following symptoms?

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Guilt
  • Changes in how well you sleep or how much you eat
  • Crying spells that catch you off guard
  • Emotional numbness
  • Nightmares
  • Shock
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Rapid breathing
  • Inability to stop thinking about traumatic events

I know you’re looking at this list and saying, “Of course, I’ve experienced some of these feelings during, and after, caregiving – some days I experience them all at the same time!” It’s understandable that you may have a wide range of feelings and emotions while you’re caring for a loved one, or after the loved one you were caring for has died. But it might interest you to know that while the symptoms listed above fit caregivers to a tee, they were not found in articles about the stress of Caregiving. They are all from articles about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

While it’s generally accepted in the medical community that PTSD symptoms manifest in people who have experienced trauma related to war, natural disasters, car or plane crashes, terrorist attacks, sudden death of a loved one, rape, kidnapping, assault, sexual or physical abuse, and childhood neglect, the trauma of caregiving is rarely included in articles about traumatic events that contribute to PTSD.

Read this description of PTSD:
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. PTSD can affect those who personally experience the catastrophe, those who witness it, and those who pick up the pieces afterwards, including emergency workers and law enforcement officers. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma. Most people associate PTSD with battle–scarred soldiers–and military combat is the most common cause in men–but any overwhelming life experience can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.”

As a caregiver, you know how traumatic caring for an ailing or dying loved one is; how helpless you feel; how overwhelming all of your responsibilities can become; how unpredictable and uncontrollable your loved one’s disease and symptoms are. So the next time you’re feeling like a wimp because you burst into tears occasionally, or an idiot because you keep forgetting things, or a grump because you lost your temper for a second, or an insomniac because you can’t sleep at night, or a hypochondriac because you keep having unexplainable pains that come and go, cut yourself some slack. Caregiving is one of the hardest things a person can choose to do for someone they love, and the inherent stress and trauma creates a myriad of mental and physical problems.

Not everyone who has experienced a traumatic event has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many people experience traumatic events, and it’s normal to have strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, or stress afterwards. You may be experiencing some of the symptoms of PTSD, but this doesn’t mean you have PTSD. Many of the symptoms of PTSD are part of the body’s normal response to stress.

For this reason, mental health professionals have come up with specific requirements that must be met to get a diagnosis of PTSD. These requirements are referred to as Criteria A – F and are outlined in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The six criteria for a PTSD diagnosis are described below.

Criterion A
A person must have experienced a traumatic event where both of the following occurred:
•    The person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event where there was the threat of or actual death or serious injury. The event may also have involved a threat to the person’s physical well-being or the physical well-being of another person.
•    The person responded to the event with strong feelings of fear, helplessness, or horror.
Criterion B
The person experiences at least one of the following re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD:
•    Frequently having upsetting thoughts or memories about a traumatic event.
•    Having recurrent nightmares.
•    Acting or feeling as though the traumatic event were happening again, sometimes called a “flashback.”
•    Having very strong feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event.
•    Being physically responsive, such as experiencing a surge in your heart rate or sweating, to reminders of the traumatic event.
Criterion C
The person experiences at least three of the following avoidance symptoms of PTSD:
•    Making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
•    Making an effort to avoid places or people that remind you of the traumatic event.
•    Having a difficult time remembering important parts of the traumatic event.
•    A loss of interest in important, once positive, activities.
•    Feeling distant from others.
•    Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings, such as happiness or love.
•    Feeling as though your life may be cut short.
Criterion D
The person experiences at least two of the following hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD:
•    Having a difficult time falling or staying asleep.
•    Feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger.
•    Having difficulty concentrating.
•    Feeling constantly “on guard” or like danger is lurking around every corner.
•    Being “jumpy” or easily startled.
Criterion E
The symptoms described above must have lasted for more than a month. If the symptoms have lasted for less than a month, you may have another anxiety disorder called Acute Stress Disorder.
Criterion F
The symptoms described above have a great negative impact on your life, interfering with work or relationships.

As with any problem, knowing that you have the problem is the first step toward wellness. Once you put a name to the problem you can begin to do research and get help for it. Some people try to manage their PTSD in unhealthy ways (alcohol, drugs) but there are ways to cope with the symptoms of PTSD and try to turn it around. Finding the coping strategies that work for you is important – strategies that work for you may not work for someone else, and some strategies may work for you at some times and not during others.

Get professional help. If you think you may have PTSD, it’s important that you meet with a mental health professional trained in assessing and treating PTSD. There are therapists who specialize in PTSD, and  psychological treatments  and medicinal treatments that have been shown to be effective in alleviating symptoms. Even if you don’t have PTSD, if you’re experiencing these symptoms and your life is being disrupted by them, reach out for support. Many people who suffer from PTSD, and caregivers especially, are embarrassed to admit they have a problem to others. They feel selfish turning attention on themselves when their loved one is suffering or has died. It’s difficult to overcome the shame, but isolation will only compound symptoms, while social interaction with supportive friends, family, or a support group is beneficial.

Learn to relax. Make time to do something that will focus your mind outside of yourself, and get some fresh air and possibly some exercise – long walks in a pretty place, yoga or meditation, gardening, biking, sailing, or swimming. Less active distractions are still good for your mind: movies, reading, spending time with friends or animals, cooking classes, a hot bath, listening to music, whatever works for you. If you’ve been avoiding activities that were previously pleasurable to you, give them a chance. If they no longer please you as they once did, at least you’re trying, and you may discover something new to take their place.

Express yourself. Find ways to get what’s all jumbled up inside of you out and onto paper, canvas, or wood. Get a journal and write a little every day. Keep a Dream Journal by your bedside table. If you’ve never painted before, find a class, or go to the art or hobby store and buy some cheap canvas panels, some paints in colors that appeal to you, and a few brushes. Just paint. It doesn’t have to look like anything, sometimes just smearing colors around is therapeutic.  It’s best to start with Acrylic paints because they don’t smell, they dry fast, and you can clean the brushes with soap and water.

Get healthy. Never underestimate the connection between your body and your mind. Start being mindful about what you’re eating – get some fresh fruits and veggies in your diet. The next time you’re waiting for the toast to pop up, do some pushups against the kitchen counter. Start moving – your body’s just waiting for a chance to show you what it can do, and your mind will follow.

Spirituality. Many people find comfort in the spiritual realm. Whether you find it in a church or in a forest, connecting with a power greater than yourself can give you a much needed sense of peace.



I wrote this article because while doing research on soldiers and PTSD, I came across the above diagnostic criterion and realized that I still experience some of the symptoms of PTSD, even thought it’s been six years since my husband died. But I’m lucky, I possess the abilities to channel my feelings positively and constructively, and I have a good support system of friends, so I continue to mend. Some of the caregivers I communicate with exhibit all the symptoms of PTSD and say they wonder daily how much longer they’ll be able to hold on, mentally, physically, and financially.

In the current economic climate, many caregivers have the added stress of housing, feeding, and purchasing medications for their loved ones while struggling financially, or unemployed. Their contribution to society, and the burden they spare hospitals and governmental agencies from carrying, is undeniable. Visit our “Financial Aid” and “Rai$e Money Online” pages for more about financial relief.

Financial aid; tax breaks; eldercare benefits; wellness programs; affordable insurance plans that cover uninsured dependent parents; free legal and financial advice around Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance issues – there are many ways we can begin to lighten the load carried by this growing segment of our society. And by recognizing that caregivers suffer from PTSD, the medical community will be opening doors to diagnosis and treatment for a group that has suffered in silence for too long. Employers, the medical community, and the government has to do more to help this growing segment of the population, before they fall ill themselves and end up in hospital beds alongside their loved ones.



Mayo Clinic
Web MD
Help Guide


146 Responses to Caregivers & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  1. Tony D says:

    Hi Yemi,

    Thanks for sharing your experience – there are many, many others out there who can so identify with what you have gone through, and are likely wondering many of the same things you are. You are certainly not alone in the least…

    Your story is yet another compelling argument that caregivers are under tremendous amounts of stress as they try to cope with the often daunting responsibility of caring for a loved one. The financial aspect, the never-ending ‘round the clock vigilance, and so many changes to your everyday lifestyle – of course they are going to take a toll, and in your case a large one…

    As you look back and reflect on what you went through, I hope you can take great comfort in the fact that YOU did everything humanly possible as your mother’s caregiver. It’s easy, but not in the least productive, to sit back and Monday morning quarterback the experience – “What could I have done better? Did I do all I could? If I had done this or that, would the outcome have been different?” Much like an artist who is never quite satisfied with the performance or the piece of work, it’s normal to strive for perfection – of course, we never quite get there…

    We’re all wired differently – some can handle more, some, much less. The common ground though is that we all TRY and do our very best – no one goes into a caregiving experience thinking they’ll make a mess of it. You did an amazing job for your Mother, and I’m sure she was so very appreciative of your efforts. We can’t go back and rewrite history, so please don’t beat yourself to death with introspective look backs…

    Now is the time to devote 100% effort to you and your healing. You already know how tough it is moving forward, but it sounds like you are taking all the measures you can to move forward. Just as the happy times are a part of your psyche, so are the sad and stressful ones. With time and proper attention to your situation (therapy, good friends who can help), you will move past this experience. You have been dinged up by the experience, you have been beaten down to a shell of your former self – you can however, progress back to where you were before. From a practical standpoint as far as missing important dates, assuming you have some of the modern gadgets, use all the reminders that they have built into them. Use ‘Sticky Notes’, have a trusted friend check in or give you a call – whatever it takes. It’s not being stupid, it’s being resourceful – you are coping with a very stressful experience, and whatever it takes for that coping to occur is fair game…

    I’m hoping your path looks brighter and that it happens sooner rather than later. DLH is here for you, and I hope you can take some comfort in the fact that by sharing your story, you’ve not only helped yourself, but others who are in the same boat.


  2. Yemi says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I cared for my mother with dementia alone for seven years. In the beginning two years, her sister helped by looking after her in the family home for a few weeks to a month at a time. However for four years it was only me with about two months accumulatively respite.

    I had little or no sleep, was constantly hyper vigilant, depressed at times to the point of suicide because I was going so far down (my blood sugar, blood pressure, and and an autoimmune disease took out all of my hair in the front)– we were $195 over income for any assistance

    I began to feel that she would get the care she needed it I as not around. She fell one morning and fractured her pelvic bone. While she was in the hospital, I finally found a retirement care home that we could afford. She was getting wonderful care but suffered a mild stroke and eventually went to a rehab facility for reconditioning. They were horrible.

    Eventually she died after suffering a fall or a blow to the head according to the coroner. She died in my arms 10 months ago. I am in therapy. I cry a lot, don’t leave the house much. But, what is more troubling (and why I went on this web search about PTSD) I can not seem to hold onto important appointments. I have a job I love (low stress) and twice I forgot what day I am to go to work. It just walks out of my mind. I used to teach school, work as a program administrator, supervise teachers, write grants–really capable of being on top of things.

    When I forgot to go to work today, I felt like such a failure, totally irresponsible, unreliable. I really broke down crying thinking something is terribly wrong with me, wondering if this inability to concentrate and hold onto information was part of the aftermath of being worn down from caregiving; from the pain of my mother’s death, from being the last one standing of my family. At least your article helped me not feel so stupid and a damaged carcass of my former self. Thank you so much for that. I just want to heal and go back to be a productive human being. I don’t think I will ever heal the pain of the fact and the how of my mother’s death.

    • Char says:

      Welcome Yemi,
      I was saddened to read of the difficulty you had in dealing with the care and loss of your mom. Caregiving as you know is a wonderful, amazing, difficult, life altering experience. I was literally thrown into it about 15 years ago, and have been there ever since.

      My mom passed close to 11 months ago, after roughly 4 years of declining health. She was a young vibrant 94 year old, mom, grandma, artist, traveler, that really wasn’t “ready” to go. She passed after a “fall” in a rehab facility she was in, when she “fell” out of bed and broke her hip.

      As a caregiver ( I still am to my husband) I have not slept through the nite in 15 years. It is a hard job, it takes so much, and in the end gives just as much, and yet we tend to lose as much as we give. I hope that makes sense.

      What is so great about this site, is we all get it. We all have been there, are there now, and/or might be there again sooner than later.

      I believe you are on the right track, and think you need to give yourself much more credit. Please go easy on yourself, you have lived through a life altering event, and are emerging on the other side, not an easy task.

      Forgetfulness is of course a side effect of PTSD, so continue on with the therapy. I hope you will find peace in knowing you gave your all to care for your mom, and now you must continue to heal, and begin to live once again.

      My thoughts and prayers are with you.

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