Can a Relationship Give You PTSD?

It's part of the fallout from having an abusive partner.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme anxiety disorder caused by experiencing a life-threatening event or situation. Often, people associate PTSD with war-related events, but other situations—such as car accidents, chronic health problems, or natural disasters—can also lead to the condition.

"It can happen to anyone," said Aron Tendler, MD, chief medical officer of Brainsway, a mental health tech company. "A number of factors can increase the chances that someone will develop PTSD, many of which are not under that person's control. You can develop PTSD when you go through, see, or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation"—all of which could happen as part of an abusive relationship. Here's what you need to know about PTSD from relationships.

What Causes Relationship PTSD?

PTSD is characterized by intrusive memories, avoidance of things that could remind a person of the trauma, moodiness, and hyperarousal, a state in which your body kicks into high alert, said Dr. Tendler. "These four clusters of symptoms persist over at least one month and impair patients' ability to function normally in daily life."

An abusive relationship can lead to PTSD, he said, because the traumatic events that took place during the relationship can cause the symptoms to stay present during and long after the relationship has ended. In particular, symptoms can stem from abuse that is physical, sexual, emotional, or a combination of the types. "When these symptoms are present for a period of time, it can be diagnosed as PTSD," Dr. Tendler told Health.

What Specific Issues Might Relationship PTSD Cause?

In general, people with PTSD have intense disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. Those with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline noted that experiencing abuse from a relationship can leave a person feeling:

  • Overwhelmed or anxious
  • Irritable
  • Teary without reason
  • Wary or uncomfortable

Beyond reliving the abuse in their minds, they may also fixate on certain words or thoughts and blame themselves for what happened. Often, individuals suffering with PTSD have interpersonal issues with the people close to them. A September 2018 Clinical Psychology Review study found that individuals who have PTSD and their partners both may lack emotional and physical intimacy.

What's more, those who end up experiencing PTSD might also be diagnosed with other psychological disorders. Depression is a common co-occurring diagnosis in people with PTSD. According to an article published by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), people who have or have had a PTSD diagnosis are three to five times more likely to have a depressive disorder. Additionally, researchers of a July 2020 Psychiatric Quarterly study in the United Kingdom also found that those with PTSD presented with different types of anxiety disorders, psychosis, and substance use disorders.

How to Heal After an Abusive Relationship

Recovery from trauma is different for everybody, but a psychiatrist or therapist can help people with PTSD find the right path.

"I remind trauma survivors that they are not alone and that feelings of shame and guilt after enduring trauma are normal," said Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director for California-based Mindpath Health. Dr. Magavi said she also discusses with patients changes in the brain, how children and adults tend to blame themselves when a loved and trusted individual perceives them as subservient, and how gaslighting can lead to dejection.

"I help them recognize their strengths and aspirations and find their voice again by providing them with therapy and initiating medications to target their depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic symptoms when warranted," said Dr. Magavi. The therapy can take many forms, including mindfulness activities, yoga, dance, art, and exercise. "Catharsis (the process of letting go of strong emotions) of any form allows trauma survivors to practice self-compassion."

Dr. Magavi may also ask her patients to create lists of reasons why they are not to blame, read these out loud, and process associated emotions with her. "When they are ready, I encourage them to speak to me as if I am the individual who hurt them; I encourage them to release all their emotions freely."

You can find additional resources through the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the CDC.

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