How To Know If You Have ‘relationship Ptsd’ And 7 Steps To Heal
DEAR DR. JENN,
I am recently out of a really bad relationship with someone who was critical, controlling, and generally emotionally abusive. There was no physical abuse but I keep having flashbacks about things that happened and find myself obsessing over the whole relationship and can’t move forward. I feel like I have relationship PTSD. Is that a thing? Relationship PTSD
DEAR RELATIONSHIP PTSD,
I’m hearing ‘relationship PTSD’ come up a lot lately in my practice and in pop culture and the answer is yes, it is indeed a real thing.
While it doesn’t sound like what you’re experiencing, relationship PTSD can be an actual clinical diagnosis. This occurs when there has been a life-threatening situation like domestic abuse or other types of violence in a relationship. In situations like this, the person’s symptoms meet the clinical diagnosis for PTSD, based on a list of symptoms in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , the handbook therapists use to diagnose psychological disorders.
Avoid Minimizing Their Feelings
Being overly positive when someone is experiencing PTSD symptoms can come across as if youre trying to minimize the situation. To them, it might feel like youre expecting them to switch gears and suddenly become happy. They likely cant do that, even as much as they probably would like to. Instead of saying something like, Cheer up, honey. We all have bad days, try something more like, I can see that youre hurting, and Im on your side however I can be.
When To Seek Help
When signs or symptoms of trauma impact your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, your relationships, or other aspects of your life, the support of a mental health professional may be needed.
Therapy can be a safe environment for individuals to learn coping skills to manage anxiety, fear, or distress. It can also help a person work through emotions such as guilt, shame, or anger. Working with a therapist or psychologist creates an opportunity for individuals to process their thoughts and feelings, identify healthy boundaries, and expand their support system.
A healthcare provider may recommend a consultation with a psychiatrist for further evaluation of mental health. If other symptoms or mental health conditions are present, a psychiatrist or healthcare provider may prescribe anti-anxiety, antidepressant, or other medications to manage and reduce symptoms.
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You Have Intrusive Thoughts
While its OK to think about your ex as you process what happened, be on the lookout for signs youre getting obsessive. It may feel like you want to think about something else, but canât.
Individuals who have post-traumatic relationship disorder have a tendency to struggle with obsessive thoughts about following relationships,Naphtali Roberts, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle.
Intrusive thoughts can be vivid, scary, and often totally dictate your day. This can often lead to distraction, acting impulsively, difficulty falling or staying asleep, or constant crying or irritability because you remember past choices,â she says.
Identify And Manage Your Triggers
Abuse survivors often experience flashbacks, memories, nightmares, or panic attacks when theyre triggered. Raised voices, shouting, arguing, any sound, smell, place, or taste that reminds them of the abuser can make them revisit the traumatic event and act defensively.
You might not be able to identify all of your triggers immediately. Take some time and be kind to yourself. Realizing the triggers when they happen and talking to your partner about them will help you manage them.
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Counseling: The Key To Healing Relationship Ptsd
There are many ways to heal from relationship PTSD and its important to know that you dont have to do it alone. I recommend to anyone who has been in an abusive relationship that they seek counseling to work through symptoms they may be experiencing that are interfering with their daily life.
My favorite treatment model to assist patients in healing from PTSD is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing . EMDR is a heavily researched, proven effective technique that helps patients reprocess painful memories to reduce emotional distress when remembering the traumatic event. It basically helps the brain file traumatic memories away in long-term memory so that individuals truly feel it happened in the past and is not still happening in their present. With help from a trained and licensed therapist or counselor, an individual can start down the road to recovering from relationship PTSD.
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On a typical anger-filled evening, I say enough is enough and I decide to fight back. But even in his stumbling drunken stupor, he’s stronger than I am.
I see the look in his eye as he hovers over me. He has biologically been given the ability to kill. That look in his eye terrifies me.
“Go ahead and leave,” he sneers to me. “But the kids stay here.”
My retreat that night is all it takes to turn the faucet on all the way and force me to tread water, if not for my life, then at the very least for my sanity.
Despite my best attempts, my secret has been exposed. I can’t just up and leave like well-meaning friends tell me to. It’s not that easy.
I have no money. In fact, he found my secret stash I’d been working on for almost a year. I thought I was so careful that no bank records would come to the house. He must have broken into my email.
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Can You Get Ptsd From Dating
Well, the thing is, dating PTSD is really real. After having been in one too many abusive relationships, having been cheated on, used for everything I had, and being hurt without any respite from it, I developed PTSD.
I stiffen up when I feel like guys might have an interest in me. I have nightmares about my exes. Occasionally, if I see someone who looks like one of my exes, I start getting panic attacks.
My dating and relationship PTSD is real and, frankly, its affected me in ways that I dont really think that people can fully grasp. And if youve been thinking, Do I have PTSD? especially after leaving a turbulent relationship, this is what its like to get post-traumatic stress disorder from your dating life.
1. You wonder, almost daily, if any of the people you dated even feel remorseful for what they did.
I wonder this a lot. I also try to push this thought down into my subconscious, because I know that the answer is obviously no.
Most of my exes thought they were Jesus Christ on Earth why would they ever actually admit to themselves that hitting me, cheating on me, or sexually assaulting me was wrong?
2. When someone tells you that they love you, your response is often, I wish I could believe you, or, Thats nice.
Its happened to me about 30 times or so.
These days, I actually have trained myself to say the L-word back. Even so, Im not sure I can mean it. I dont feel love anymore.
Aims To Diminish Another Persons Sense Of Identity Dignity And Self
Regardless of how emotional abuse unfolds, experts agree that it has devastating effects on those who are subjected to it.
Unfortunately, these effects as well as each harmful act of abuse are largely invisible. This makes it difficult for most people to comprehend the very real risks and damage of emotional abuse.
Lets demonstrate why. For a moment, try to imagine a scene of physical violence, a fight. Even if youve never witnessed or experienced it firsthand, your imagination can probably fill in the picture pretty well. The struggle. The adrenaline and fear. The aftermath of blood, bruises, tears. Its a painful portrait but likely one that you can envision.
Now, try to picture a scene of emotional abuse, specifically someone whose self-identity has been annihilated. Can you see it?
Chances are your mind doesnt know where to begin. But if you are able to create a picture of either the acts of abuse or what the damage looks like on the person who experienced it, can you put that image into words?
While describing physical wounds is pretty straightforward, its much harder to articulate emotional trauma. The parts of a person that sustained emotional abuse destroysidentity, dignity, and self-worthare abstract, almost impossible to picture or measure.
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What Pstd As A Result Of Abuse Can Look Like
Abusive relationships can come in a variety of forms and they all cause damage. Whether its physical, emotional, or psychological, there are lasting effects on a victim that can be seen long after the relationship has ended. One of the primary things that abusive relationships have in common is that they are drawn out over time. Many abusive relationships go on for years before a victim can find the courage, help, and support to change their relationship or break free.
PTSD is often used as a general term, but it really refers to those who have suffered short-term experiences rather than chronic or on-going traumas. Because abusive relationships typically span a length of time, the PTSD that develops from such an experience is referred to as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD. This category includes things like being held prisoner, being a victim of human trafficking, and being trapped in abusive relationships. So, the wife who says she has PTSD from her abusive husband very likely does, and more specifically she has complex-PTSD.
Dr. Kurt has experience working with people suffering with relationship abuse PTSD. When asked about it he had this to say,
There are several similarities in the behaviors associated with PTSD and C-PTSD victims, but there are some primary differences. Those suffering from C-PTSD will often develop debilitating self-doubt, extreme loss of confidence, and a diminished sense of identity.
You Keep Blaming Yourself
Due to the fact you were manipulated and gaslighted, you might even believe that you âcausedâ this breakup, Dr. Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. You also might worry that you drove your ex to act the way they did or feel as if you caused the breakup by being âdifficultâ â even though that isnât true.
This type of relationship PTSD will cause you to over-analyze what happened and replay scenarios of how things could have been different, adds relationship expert Rori Sassoon. Youâll wonder what you couldâve done differently and feel intense guilt for not being âperfect.â
Itâs hard, but redirecting your thoughts in these moments is super important. “The goal is to start re-centering yourself to focus on you and to re-pattern your attention,” Sassoon says. This can be done with the help of friends or a trained therapist who can assist you in breaking out unhelpful thought cycles.
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How Might Loved Ones React
Partners, friends, or family members may feel hurt, cut off, or down because the survivor has not been able to get over the trauma. Loved ones may become angry or distant toward the survivor. They may feel pressured, tense, and controlled. The survivor’s symptoms can make a loved one feel like he or she is living in a war zone or in constant threat of danger. Living with someone who has PTSD can sometimes lead the partner to have some of the same feelings of having been through trauma.
In sum, a person who goes through a trauma may have certain common reactions. These reactions affect the people around the survivor. Family, friends, and others then react to how the survivor is behaving. This in turn comes back to affect the person who went through the trauma.
How A Toxic Relationship May Cause Ptsd
Post-traumatic stress disorder usually manifests itself after the traumatic event occurs. But in a toxic relationship, a person may continue to be retraumatized every day.
Over timeespecially years or decadesthe unhealthy dynamic and constant exposure to trauma wears them down. It also is the source of specific events that cause trauma. For instance, a couple gets into an argument and one physically assaults the other. A single incident like that could easily trigger trauma, but what about if it occurs consistently over a long period of time? Without a doubt, you can see where PTSD is in the making.
For example, put yourself in the shoes of someone who has been abused in their relationship. Lets say theyre grocery shopping. Suddenly, they hear a loud bang and are startled to the point of tears and panic. But it was a clerk who accidentally dropped something on the floor. For that person though, their thought process immediately causes them to think they are in danger. Thats because the noise reminded them of their partner. They had, in the past when angry, lashed out, broken objects, or punched holes in walls.
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You Feel Like You Dont Deserve A Healthy Relationship
Low self-esteem, to the point where you feel like you donât deserve a happy relationship, is another sign of trauma. âYour ex-partner throughout the course of the relationship probably made you feel lesser than, talked down to you and belittled you, so you felt like you had no good qualities or anything to offer,â Schiff says. Itâs yet another reason why you may feel drawn to unhealthy dynamics with others and maybe even end up with another toxic partner.
What Are The Symptoms Of Relationship Ptsd
Because PTRS is related to PTSD, it can produce similar symptoms:
- intrusive thoughts
- angry outbursts
Words, objects, or situations that remind the person of the triggering event might push the body into a fight or flight mode. With PTSD, this can lead to avoidance of anything that might remind them of the trauma.
However, with PTRS, a person can end up dwelling on the events that led to traumaand the trauma itselfpotentially worsening the symptoms.
We become hypervigilant or stuck in time, or have the compulsion to repeat the trauma so we can understand and control or change it, Dutchevici says. But in doing so, the result is always the same, she adds.
Dissociation, the state of feeling like a guest in your own body, might also occur.
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Flashbacks Of The Traumatic Situation
This one ties in with the first point. Having flashbacks of the same trauma makes you more likely to self isolate out of fear.
Moreover, people asking can you have PTSD from a relationship often become aware only after they recognize this pattern.
While unsavory, its difficult to control your thoughts at the moment.
It might even make you react or lash out in a way thats unlikely of you.
Reinforcing Negative Thoughts And Feeling Hopeless
Ill never find a healthy relationship because Im emotionally damaged.
Maybe Im not deserving enough for one.
These kinds of disparaging remarks are normal when PTSD overloads your senses. You prefer to be by yourself and get busy in order to avoid these intrusive thoughts.
After all, feeling nothing is always better than exploring uncharted waters. This is the moment when afflicted people tend to numb themselves to any new feeling or situation.
Getting out of your comfort zone seems like danger and a risk you dont want to take. You may even build boundaries and dont allow yourself to feel anything at all.
While general sadness is another thing, feeling hopeless about your future prospects is another. If these feelings stem from a past relationship, you may very well be experiencing Relationship PTSD.
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You Feel The Need To Apologize
“When you’ve been in a toxic relationship you often develop coping patterns to try to keep the chaos to a minimum,” Roberts says. “One of these patterns can be saying you are sorry for all of your thoughts, feelings, or actions.â
And it can be a tough habit to shake. âOften an individual in a toxic relationship has trained their brain that by apologizing they can control their partnerâs reaction patterns,â she says. âEven once an individual has left the unhealthy relationship they often can find themselves automatically apologizing to try to protect themselves from the hurt and judgment they previously experienced.”
Get Yourself Involved With Something
Isolation and the desire to have minimal communication isnt the solution when youre suffering from PTSD from divorce.
It is essential that you divert your attention to things that are necessary, like your mental, emotional and physical well-being.
So, start focusing on things that you always wanted to do, or your work, or some hobby that you had left ages ago. Things cant be undone, but certainly, we can give some time for the wound to heal.
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Symptoms Of Psychological Trauma
We all react to trauma in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no right or wrong way to think, feel, or respond, so dont judge your own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.
Emotional & psychological symptoms:
- Muscle tension
Signs Of Relationship Trauma
Ending an abusive relationship is just one step in the process of healing from an unhealthy situation.
Relationship trauma can include feelings of rage and anger toward the abusive partner. In the aftermath, a person may experience distressing thoughts or feelings, cognitive difficulties, and re-experiencing of trauma. Some research suggests lingering psychological, physiological, and relational challenges.
Signs of relationship trauma can include:
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