60% of adults report experiencing trauma in their childhood (National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, “Childhood Trauma and Its Effect on Health Development“, July 2012) and 4 of 10 children say they experienced a physical assault in the past year (JAMA Pediatrics, May 2013).
The most well known symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, avoidance of triggers and dissociation. Less obvious, though, and possibly more pervasive are the effects that PTSD has on the ability to have healthy relationships. Trauma is defined as experiencing an event where you perceived a serious threat to your life or someone else’s life. Trauma survivors don’t always have PTSD, but trauma always has lasting effects on our lives and relationships.
Trauma survivors often feel a sense of betrayal and have a difficult time trusting others. That can make it pretty difficult to have a relationship with another person. Emotional closeness feels like a threat to existence rather than something wonderful and comforting. Sometimes survivors will numb themselves emotionally rather than face feeling something. Emotional closeness can even trigger flashbacks and a trauma response, further distancing the survivor from people who who are trying to connect. Survivors often isolate themselves, pulling back from social activities as well as relationships. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to help them cope with the symptoms of PTSD and this can be even more isolating.
It can be tough loving someone who has survived trauma and may have PTSD. When survivors feel threatened, they will push you away. After a while, it’s too exhausting to reach out anymore. Partners can feel alienated, discouraged or even angry. Sex is a very special challenge, with trauma responses ranging from hypersexuality to lack of sexual interest, or even fluctuating from one extreme to the other. It can be truly dizzying for everyone involved. If the trauma survivor experienced sexual abuse or assault, they may have flashbacks during any kind of intimacy that brings them back to the moment of the assault and the terror they felt. This can be terrifying for both the survivor and their partner. Trauma survivors are also more likely to experience depression. With depression comes low energy and lack of interest in pleasurable activities, such as sex.
Effects on relationships aren’t limited to intimate relationships, but also extend to friends and family members. Being a parent is tough enough. If you’re on an emotional roller coaster of hypervigilance, depression, dissociation, flashbacks and nightmares, being a parent can be even more overwhelming. Being a parent of someone who has PTSD is pretty tough too. Parents can’t stand to see their children suffer. Learning that someone or something terrified your child or threatened them can be blindingly painful.
Trauma effects the survivor, everyone who loves them and everyone they love. Trauma therapy helps.