Healing After Relational Trauma
Relational trauma undermines self-image and the ability to form productive, satisfying relationships. Relational trauma can cause emotional pain and loneliness that lasts a lifetime, if nothing is done to relieve the suffering it creates. Fortunately, relational trauma and associated mental health disorders are highly responsive to treatment, and as long as clients in treatment remain committed to recovery their chances of achieving it are excellent.
People who suffer from relational trauma carry significant emotional baggage that interferes with their capacity to form new relationships while properly nurturing the old ones. In response to reminders of their past trauma, they may experience feelings of dissociation, which manifests as a disturbing separation or disconnection from reality, the world, and even their own minds and bodies.
The memories of their traumatic experiences at the hands of people they trusted or depended on, which remain imprinted on their brains and in their thoughts and reactions, prevent them from moving on with their lives and from building a healthy and empowered self-image.
Fortunately, the symptoms of relational trauma can be managed and its impact minimized. People who’ve been traumatized by previous dysfunctional relationships can achieve new perspectives, renew their weakened spirits, and create satisfying and rewarding connections with friends, family members, and romantic partners, if they are able and willing to fully embrace the healing process.
Recovery from relational trauma can take time, but recovery is a realistic goal for those who aren’t afraid to face the challenges.
Sources of Relational Trauma
Everyone’s self-image grows, at least in part, out of their relationships with other people. Good relationships help cultivate a sense of trust in others and optimism about life, which are the linchpins of healthy emotional development.
Parents are the most important actors in this process, and most cases of relational trauma can be traced to childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment. But the behavior of other adult role models or caregivers can also have a huge impact on children and adolescents.
In adulthood, spouses, romantic interests, business partners, friends, relatives, or even strangers who gain momentary access to a person’s life can precipitate relational trauma through their actions, which cause intense physical or emotional harm to their victims.
Exposure to these traumatic episodes can leave relational trauma sufferers plagued by terrible memories and overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, shame, and helplessness. Time passes but the effects of the past trauma does not, and its continuing impact is difficult to overcome without long-term mental health care.
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Emotional and Behavioral Signs of Relational Trauma
The inner turmoil of relational trauma sufferers is a reflection of their pain and disillusionment, with themselves and with others.
Some of the common emotional and behavioral signs of relational trauma include:
Fear of abandonment
Regardless of how solid and stable their relationships might appear at any moment, people with relational trauma constantly fear losing the people they love. In fact, they often think it is inevitable unless they are somehow able to say and do all the right things. As a result of their insecurities they may be overly solicitous or excessively needy, but beneath it all is a deep mistrust that makes their relationships both exhausting and difficult to maintain.
Adults with strong fear of abandonment were often physically or emotionally abandoned by their parents, which sets the stage for later issues with trust.
Fear of failure
People with relational trauma often feel they must be perfect in everything they do, in order to avoid being judged or criticized. They take everything seriously and are sensitive to the smallest signs of rejection, and they tend to avoid challenging situations or circumstances because of their fear of failure. Unfortunately, their avoidance of risk prevents them from pursuing their true passions, and as a result they feel frustrated and repressed.
Relational trauma sufferers raised by demanding and uncaring parents often experience fear of failure, which is a sign of low self-confidence and poor self-esteem.
A tendency to prioritize the feelings of others
Too often, people with relational trauma put the needs of others before their own, which creates a complex interpersonal dynamic marked by hidden hostility and resentment. This behavior isn’t based on altruism, but on a lack of self-esteem and a belief that others expect that level of dedication and will leave if it is not offered.
Many trauma sufferers who develop this tendency grew up in households where parents were physically or emotionally unavailable, or where behavior that put the needs of parents first was rewarded.
Hypervigilant people are constantly aware of everything happening around them, in the surrounding environment, and with other people. They adjust their moods, attitudes, speech, and behavior to meet what they believe are the expectations of others, which prevents them from ever expressing their true thoughts and feelings. Being honest and open seems far too dangerous, and they avoid it and the rejection it might bring.
In most instances, relational trauma sufferers who exhibit hypervigilant behavior were abused by parents, caretakers, or spouses. Their hypervigilance developed as a survival strategy, and it stayed with them even after they managed to escape their dysfunctional relationships.
Replaying social encounters repeatedly
Relational trauma sufferers tend to treat every social interaction as if it were a matter of life or death. They frequently second-guess their own words and actions as they replay those encounters over and over again in their minds, convinced they made mistakes that others noticed and judged them for. Needless to say, this type of behavior is exhausting.
People with relational trauma often feel guilt and shame, feeling as if they were somehow responsible for the abuse, neglect, or abandonment they experienced. Because of their damaged self-esteem they often blame themselves for their difficult personal histories, and their distorted self-image leads to a distorted (negative) assessment of their own behavior and worthiness.
Rather than struggling to overcome their feelings of guilt, shame, mistrust, helplessness, and inferiority in relationships, some relational trauma sufferers choose to isolate themselves from others, to avoid the rejection and mistreatment they fear. They want healthy, productive, and loving relationships, but their distressing memories seemingly make it impossible. They might convince themselves that independence is really what they want, but their apparent self-sufficiency is actually just a mask for their insecurities and damaged psyches.
Self-sufficiency is a coping mechanism for people who don’t trust others and feel undeserving of being loved or respected, and relational trauma sufferers may hide from the world as a way to escape their pain and loneliness.
Consequences of Relational Trauma
The impact of relational trauma can be immense, whether the traumatic incidents occur in childhood or later.
People with deep-seated emotional wounds from their betrayal by others may suffer from:
- An inability to initiate or sustain relationships
- Mental and behavioral health difficulties, with conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, personality disorders, and eating disorders
- Self-harming behavior, up to and including attempts at suicide
- Substance use disorders
- Chronic insomnia
- Dissociation and dissociative disorders
- Anxiety-related physical health problems (i.e., headaches, chronic neck pains, fatigue, chest pains, digestive issues, etc.)
Unresolved emotional issues are the hidden causal factors of poor mental and physical health in many cases, and until those issues are dealt with wellness will remain elusive.
The Role of Treatment in Healing and Recovery
No one can heal from relational trauma, or its impact, overnight. This is especially true for relational trauma sufferers who’ve developed substance use disorders or co-occurring mental or behavioral health conditions. Relational trauma functions as a type of disorder in and of itself, but it is also a background factor in the development of a wide range of debilitating conditions, which also require treatment.
The encouraging news is that treatment for relational trauma and its aftereffects can be effective, if it is comprehensive, long-term, and the individual in treatment is fearless about confronting the past and determined to see their recovery through to the end.
If treatment for relational trauma and its co-occurring disorders begins in a residential treatment facility, which will give the sufferer the best chance for recovery, a well-designed healing regimen will include:
- Individual therapy. Two methods with a proven track record of success in the treatment of relational trauma sufferers are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). The first attempts to change patterns of thinking and reacting that reinforce the effects of life-altering trauma, while the latter helps sufferers disconnect or re-contextualize the painful associations their memories evoke, so they can finally face those memories and move on with their lives. A type of CBT known as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy is often used to help people who suffered great trauma during childhood.
- Group therapy. People who’ve been through trauma can gain understanding and perspective by discussing their histories and emotions with others who experienced the same things, in sessions managed by therapists trained to help people face past abuse or neglect.
- Family therapy. Family involvement is a key factor for many people who’ve been through trauma. Building a support network is a critical part of healing, and family-centered therapy can help relational trauma sufferers find the care and compassion they need from the people they love.
- Medicinal therapy. Medications will not be prescribed for relational trauma, but they may be given to help sufferers with co-occurring mood or anxiety disorders, or PTSD, cope with their most disabling and troubling symptoms.
- Holistic stress management and healing techniques. People recovering from relational trauma must embrace wellness as a lifestyle. Diet, exercise, and holistic healing methods such as meditation, yoga, music or art therapy, Tai Chi, massage therapy, and hypnotherapy can aid relational trauma sufferers seeking to reduce stress and disengage from unhealthy states of mind in general.
- Continuing care. Continuing therapy and other aftercare services are vital for relational trauma sufferers, whose healing process will continue well beyond their initial stay in a mental health treatment center.
It may take some time, but once the veil has been lifted on the past and its true impact acknowledged and confronted, relational trauma will gradually lose its capacity to interfere in relationships and keep sufferers trapped by self-doubt. With love and compassion from friends and family, trained professional assistance from mental health counselors, and self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, men and women whose lives have been profoundly impacted by traumatic relationships can recover and begin their lives anew, with great hope for the future.