form, these factors make up a risk factor called cardiovascular
reactivity, a physiological response to stress that research has
shown can lead to bigger heart problems over time.
In the next stage of the study, the couples spent 17 minutes
discussing a topic they disagreed about, and researchers
measured their cardiac reactivity throughout the task.
Afterward they assessed changes in levels of anger and anxiety
as a result of the argument.
Couples with PTSD reported greater levels of relationship
distress overall and greater increases in cardiovascular reactivity
in response to the conflict, the study found.
But the biggest surprise of the results was the population most
at risk. The female partners of PTSD veterans reported more
anger and experienced more cardiovascular reactivity than both
members of the control couple and their companions with PTSD.
The findings have important treatment implications, Caska
For one, clinicians need to consider PTSD partners more
fully in treatment, not only as supports for their partners, but
because of their own health vulnerability, she says.
“When we look at the risks associated with anger — heart
disease, poor relationship functioning and poor mental health,
for example — it’s a really important avenue to continue
researching,” Caska says. Further, the striking increases in
cardiovascular reactivity in these spouses clearly show the need
to continue evaluating and addressing the health of military
and veteran families, she says.
Given the study’s strong association between marital conflict
and cardiovascular reactivity, especially in couples with PTSD,
researchers also could consider adding couples’ conflict to other
known risk factors for cardiovascular disease in veteran and
military couples, such as poor diet and insufficient exercise,
she says. Researchers also could look more closely at possible
associations between the three clusters of PTSD symptoms —
those related to reliving the event, avoiding reminders of the
event and being constantly on guard — and marital satisfaction
indicators like conflict and warmth, she says.
Perchance to sleep
Other psychologists are exploring how relationship conflict and
stress might affect sleep among service members returning from
deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan and their spouses or partners. Sleep problems are common in service members, due in
part to inhospitable conditions and the need to be constantly
vigilant in combat environments. However, sleep problems tend
to persist even after service members return home, says Wendy
Troxel, PhD, a clinical health psychologist and behavioral and social scientist at the Rand Corp. in Pittsburgh. In addition, sleep
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