How Does PTSD from Relationships Happen?

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," Aron Tendler, MD, chief medical officer of Brainsway, a mental health tech company, told Health. "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"—which could all 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, an avoidance of things that could remind a person of the trauma, moodiness, and hyperarousal, Dr. Tendler said. "These four clusters of symptoms persist over at least one month and impair patients' ability to function normally in daily life," Dr. Tendler added.

An abusive relationship can lead to PTSD, Dr. Tendler said, because the traumatic events that took place during the relationship can cause the symptoms to stay present during the relationship, as well as 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 explained.

What Specific Issues Might PTSD From Relationships 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 might also be fixated on certain words or thoughts that also might be on mental replay and blame themselves for what happened.

This usually leads to individuals having interpersonal issues with the people close to them. For example, researchers of a September 2018 Clinical Psychology Review article noted that both individuals who have PTSD and their partners can lack emotional and physical intimacy. The VA also stated that individuals could have a hard time with "trust, closeness, communication, and problem solving" when it comes to their relationships with family and friends.

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 US 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 from the UK 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 someone who is dealing with PTSD from relationships 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," Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director for California-based Mindpath Health, told Health. Dr. Magavi has typically explained to them why this occurs by discussing changes in the brain, and how children and adults tend to blame themselves when a loved and trusted individual perceives them as subservient and routinely gaslights them, making them feel dejected.

"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 posttraumatic symptoms when warranted," Dr. Magavi said. 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 explained.

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," Dr. Magavi said.

You can find additional resources through the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the CDC for self-support and for supporting others who may also be going through relationship PTSD.

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