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Relationship PTSD: What It Is, Causes, Healing, and More
Mental Health

Relationship PTSD: What It Is, Causes, Healing, and More

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on January 3, 2023
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7 min

If you have relationship PTSD, you may experience flashbacks or nightmares about the experiences with the abusers, social anxiety or fear in intimate relationships, and feel disconnected from your family members. This article discusses what PTRS is, its symptoms, and how to heal and find support.

Relationship PTSD
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It might be challenging to end a toxic or abusive relationship. If you’re in such a relationship, your emotional health may suffer short-term and long-term effects. These kinds of relationships can sometimes cause people to experience post-traumatic relationship syndrome, also known as relationship PTSD.

Relationship trauma may include feelings of anger and hatred toward the abusive partner. You might encounter negative thoughts or emotions in the aftermath, have cognitive problems, or re-experience the trauma.

Understanding relationship PTSD can help you begin your healing process and point you on the right path as you establish your support system.

Relationship PTSD: What Does It Mean?

Also called post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS), relationship PTSD is a form of PTSD from an abusive relationship.

PTSD is an anxiety-based condition that develops after a person has endured or encountered a stressful situation or a string of traumatic, life-threatening, or dangerous events. When those triggering events or experiences originate from an abusive relationship with a spouse or significant other, post-traumatic relationship syndrome may develop.

The notion of relationship trauma came up after researchers studied victims of violent relationships and saw symptoms resembling those of PTSD. Repeated verbal, sexual, or physical abuse can end after the traumatic event, but you might not be completely free of its effects.

You might keep revisiting your memories of the abuse, reliving them, rather than ignoring and pushing them out or numbing yourself to them. The agony of this retraumatization can inhibit healing, progress, and the development of secure, healthy relationships with potential partners.

Can You Get PTSD From a Relationship?

PTSD may result from an abusive relationship. This is because the traumatic events throughout the relationship could have caused the symptoms to persist during and after the relationship. The signs and symptoms may result from physical, sexual, emotional, or a mix of these forms of abuse. 

You might have PTSD or complex PTSD (CPTSD) if you try to ignore or block out memories of the abusive relationship, find it difficult to recall specifics, or feel detached.

CPTSD, a reaction to an ongoing traumatic event, combines PTSD symptoms with other experiences, such as difficulty controlling your emotions and intense negative thoughts about yourself, such as guilt or self-blame, as well as a sense of hopelessness, sadness, or suicidal thoughts.

Working with a mental health expert can assist you in gaining a deeper understanding of the primary signs of trauma and in starting to address the lingering effects of abuse in a secure setting.

Can you get PTSD from a breakup?

The NHS says that an official post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis does not apply to situations like a breakup, divorce, job loss, or failing exams. Something must be life-threatening or pose a threat to bodily integrity to diagnose PTSD. Breakups would not cause PTSD. However, the symptoms are similar.

Various studies have shown that after a relationship ends, many people show symptoms comparable to those who have survived extremely stressful conditions.

This means that in some circumstances, people who undergo breakups may show symptoms similar to those who have experienced rape, natural catastrophes, or other potentially fatal situations.

What Does Relationship PTSD Feel Like?

Many symptoms of general post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and relationship PTSD are similar. However, some PTSD symptoms are more or less frequent among people with relationship PTSD due to the unique nature of domestic abuse.

Although professionals believe PTRS to be a real reaction to the trauma of abuse, it has not yet been identified as a formal mental health diagnosis in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The symptoms of relationship PTSD can be divided into 3 categories: arousal, intrusive, and relational. 

#1 Arousal symptoms of PTRS

The signs of reactivity or arousal are caused by your body’s reaction or response to fear. Traumatic stress makes you more responsive to the possibility of abuse because your body is in a state of hyperarousal.

The affected hormones can cause restlessness, agitation, anger, insomnia, and other sleep issues. They can also make you tense, make it difficult to concentrate, and cause feelings of panic or anxiety.

If you are continually on the lookout for potential threats, you may be unable to unwind or feel safe. This may make it challenging to maintain healthy habits, such as going for daily walks, eating balanced meals, and getting adequate sleep.

#2 Intrusive symptoms of PTRS

Intrusive symptoms include anything that makes you remember the trauma. This may include nightmares, negative thinking, panic, and a depressed mood when remembering the abuse, as well as physical symptoms of anxiety, such as an increased heart rate, shaking, or sweaty palms. Flashbacks, or feeling as though the abuse is happening at the moment, may also be present.

You may experience these symptoms when you see or do anything that makes you think about the relationship, such as going for a weekly run you often did together, hearing a term or a joke they used on you, or even when you begin a new relationship.

#3 Relational symptoms of PTRS

Relational symptoms are symptoms that make it difficult to relate to other people. 

Relationship trauma or abuse might leave you feeling like you don’t deserve a healthy relationship. You may unknowingly move toward unhealthy interactions and end up in another abusive relationship. It can make it difficult to trust loved ones and new romantic partners.

You might also suffer from anxiety disorders, experience insecurity in new relationships, think that loved ones are blaming you for what happened, and isolate yourself in response to feelings of guilt or shame.

What Are the Causes of Relationship PTSD?

Relationship PTSD is caused by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Unlike post-traumatic stress disorder, PTRS happens with a partner in an intimate connection rather than watching or experiencing a horrific episode outside of an intimate relationship.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that violence and abuse occur when one partner acts in ways intended to dominate, manipulate, or control the other partner.

Additionally, abusive partners’ trauma histories, stressful life events, and drug or alcohol use can increase violent conditions in a relationship.

Emotional abuse can present itself in the form of blaming, manipulation, shaming, threats, passive aggressiveness, or as simple as belittling your feelings or ignoring you. 

Sexual abuse includes sexual assault, rape, unwanted touch, forced prostitution, using sex as a reward, or pressure to perform certain sexual acts. 

Physical abuse in a relationship can take the form of pushing, hitting, damaging personal property, or hurling objects. This kind of relationship abuse is most likely to result in anxiety and even depression. It is frequently also related to substance misuse, both by the abuser and the victim.

Other types of relationship abuse that can cause PTRS include financial, technological, spiritual, cultural, or mental abuse, which affects your sense of reality, as in gaslighting.

Remember that every person reacts to traumatic experiences uniquely. What might be painful for one person may not be for another.

How to Heal from Relationship PTSD: 4 Ways to Help Yourself

It’s important to remember that relationship trauma doesn’t happen overnight. This means that recovery might take some time as well. Tactics to focus on during the healing process include:

#1 Establishing boundaries

Setting boundaries throughout a relationship is just as crucial as doing so after it. Let your ex know that your requirements and boundaries are important. Be specific in your requests and confident that you have the right to the time and space you need to heal.

Also, consider establishing digital boundaries, such as blocking your ex or taking a timeout from social media. The distance you might require to go with healing at your own pace can be created by knowing that your spouse doesn’t have access to you on social media.

#2 Communicating your needs

Family and friends can support you during challenging situations. While you are never required to do anything you don’t want to, it can be quite beneficial to find one or two reliable friends or family members who will listen to you without passing judgment and who will also give you the care and compassion you need to heal.

Abusive relationships weaken your ability to trust others and make you feel lonely. You may feel unhappy and dependent on toxic relationships if you continue to be socially isolated.

#3 Doing what helps you feel calm and safe 

You may get relationship PTSD symptom relief from self-management techniques, including engaging in activities such as pilates, attending a support group, talking to family and friends, and meditation. 

Remember that what works for others may not work for you. Try several techniques until you find the one that helps you to stay calm.

You may also try mental health apps like Sensa. Sensa is a journaling app for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) designed for those who experience mild anxiety, severe stress, or depression. It offers a customized program that includes daily lessons, free journaling, and other exercises to promote relaxation and control symptoms.

Sensa provides self-paced daily courses that are intended to help you understand the relationship between your ideas, emotions, and behaviors. These daily tasks can combine reading lessons, a simple test, and other different exercises to help relieve PTRS symptoms.

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Additionally, Sensa has a distinctive component that includes deep breathing exercises, five-senses activities, and grounding exercises when you feel very anxious.

#4 Trying therapy

Therapy can provide a secure setting where you can develop coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, fear, or suffering. It can also help you overcome emotions like guilt, anger, or shame. You can explore your thoughts and feelings, establish appropriate boundaries, and broaden your support network by working with a therapist or psychologist.

A Word From a Psychologist

Abusive relationships can develop relationship PTSD, which can have serious psychological and physical effects. It’s essential to remember that abuse is never the victim’s fault. 

Get help immediately if you are in an abusive relationship. If you’re having trouble recovering from relationship-related trauma, you should get medical attention as soon as possible.

Without medical attention, relationship PTSD may develop into a clinical PTSD diagnosis. Untreated PTRS increases the risk of suicide, substance abuse, and self-harm. Therefore, it’s critical to get help for PTSD as soon as you notice any symptoms.

While facing your past may seem frightening, many doctors have trained extensively in how trauma and abuse affect people. Consulting a doctor can be helpful and a necessary step in recovery.

For a thorough evaluation of mental health, a healthcare professional might advise a consultation with a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist may provide antidepressants, anti-anxiety, or other drugs to control and reduce symptoms of other mental health issues.

Conclusion

Relationship PTSD results from abusive behavior between intimate partners. The trauma can be caused by emotional, physical, or sexual abuse resulting in long-lasting psychological and physical effects. 

Even while abusive relationships have long-lasting negative effects on the people that go through them, self-care, support, and professional assistance can help them heal.

Sensa Health
Your calm mind assistant
  • Lessons based on the CBT method
  • Mood journal
  • Challenges & self-improvement activities
  • Quick relief function
  • Assessments to help you grow
Our rating:
4.5
Start Free Quiz Now
HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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