- Any kind of abuse—whether it be physical, emotional, mental, sexual, etc.—can lead to PTSD, as abuse is a highly emotionally distressing experience.
- The overactivation of stress hormones causes the victim of abuse to experience a fight, flight or freeze response, which makes it near impossible for the individual to focus on anything else.
- In the following weeks, months, even years, the traumatic event one experienced can get caught in their short-term memory and make it feel like the event is currently happening.
- This causes an influx of PTSD symptoms like hypervigilance, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and trouble concentrating.
- A major key to healing from the abuse and alleviating harmful symptoms of PTSD is working with a counselor.
- An especially effective form of therapy for relationship PTSD sufferers is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
*Robyn Gold, LCSW-R, is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, who specializes in trauma and PTSD.*
An abusive relationship can absolutely lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To understand why this is, it is first important to understand what trauma does to the brain and how it can impact one’s mental and physical wellbeing.
Understanding Relationship PTSD and Its Impact
Trauma can be defined as any highly emotionally distressing experience in which one’s sense of emotional or physical safety is in jeopardy. Therefore, any kind of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual, financial, etc.) can be considered traumatic. When someone is experiencing this kind of emotional distress, the brain can’t really process information effectively because of an overactivation of stress hormones causing a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. For example, if you were near a vicious animal, you wouldn’t be thinking, ‘Hmm, I wonder what I’m going to have for dinner tonight,’ or ‘Did I remember to turn off the lights when I left my house this morning?’ Your body would instinctively take some kind of protective action such as running away.
After a traumatic event, the memory of the trauma can sometimes get stuck or feel frozen in time in our short-term memory. Though our brain does this in preparation for protecting us from any potential future danger, it can become very emotionally uncomfortable. This is why sometimes painful things that have happened a long time ago can still sometimes feel like they are currently happening. When this happens, one can experience a variety of symptoms including:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Trouble concentrating
An abusive relationship can consist of several traumatic events, which can cause these symptoms to stay present during the relationship as well as long after the relationship has ended. Within the first month following a traumatic experience, if these symptoms are present, it is considered to be an Acute Stress Reaction. When these symptoms are present for longer than one month, it can be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Relationship PTSD can be caused by an abusive partner’s actions, behaviors, and aggressive demeanor—physical abuse need not occur.
Counseling: The Key to Healing Relationship PTSD
There are many ways to heal from relationship PTSD and it’s important to know that you don’t 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). EMDR is a heavily researched, proven effective technique that helps patients reprocess painful memories to reduce emotional distress when remembering the traumatic event(s). 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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