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How PTSD symptoms can make relationships hard

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For anyone who lives with PTSD or cares about someone who does, it likely doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that people with PTSD often struggle with relationships. And yet social support may actually help improve symptoms.

So why is it so hard? And why do people with PTSD symptoms so often seem to push away the loved ones who want to support them? Several recent studies have explored ways that PTSD can be a relationship blocker.

Treatment for PTSD symptoms may make it easier to connect with others. “[After treatment] I had just a very clear mind and was able to be more present with my kids and my family,” said one Freespira patient. “I wasn’t having these big ups and downs anymore. It’s been really good.”

Trauma can make it hard to trust people.

Like it or not, we judge books—and people—by their covers every day. We do it over and over again. Every time you meet someone new, your brain goes through a series of checks to decide what you think of them. Do they seem friendly? Safe? Threatening?

Often this happens automatically. And each encounter goes into a bank of experiences that helps us to decide the next time. Yet for people with PTSD, the brain’s ability to quickly read people may not work as well.

For one recent study at Adelphi University, researchers asked people with and without PTSD symptoms to rate the trustworthiness of a series of faces. They also watched the participants’ brain activity while they decided.

The result: The brains of people with PTSD symptoms were more active than the people without symptoms. Furthermore, the people with more severe PTSD symptoms rated the untrustworthy faces as being even more untrustworthy.

Researchers concluded that people with PTSD seemed to be more vigilant or on-guard when deciding who to trust.

 

The brains of people with PTSD may work differently.

Socializing can be a little like a puzzle. There are lots of little connections we make—or try to make—every time we meet someone new or talk to someone different: names, how you met, likes, dislikes, mutual friends.

Just carrying on a conversation can require mental gymnastics. Your brain works not just to hear the words being said, but to read between the lines. For example, how does the person feel based on what they’re saying? Psychologists sometimes refer to this as “social working memory.”

When it comes easily, you may not even notice all the work your brain is doing to keep up. When it’s hard, social interactions can be intimidating. You might say the wrong thing. Or you might just be nervous that you’re going to. You might avoid it altogether.

In a study at Dartmouth Medical School, researchers observed brain activity while participants did tasks related to either social working memory (deciding how TV characters would feel based on other characters’ feelings) or regular working memory (alphabetizing names).

While all of the participants had experienced trauma, only some of them had developed PTSD symptoms. The researchers found that the people with PTSD symptoms had a harder time with the social working memory tests.

 

Getting help for PTSD symptoms can be a start.

Freespira is unique in that it can be done right at home in only 28 days. If you’d like to learn more about how Freespira could help you or someone you care about, we’d love to hear from you.

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