Can You Be Traumatized By Your Relationship? PART I
The greatest tools needed to heal from a crisis are 1) gain a better understanding of what’s happening and 2) regain a sense of safety. Today’s two-part article on healing from relational/betrayal trauma will explore how one can establish both necessary tools. Before we get to the latter, it’s important to understand the many facets of trauma.
A traumatic event can be loosely defined as the following:
Anything that overwhelms your nervous system
It catches you off guard
It is something you don’t feel prepared for nor know how to handle
It can make you feel scared or helpless
It can lead you to feel shameful
You experience moments when you’re not sure you will make it through the event
There is a real or perceived threat
Do any of those descriptors resonate with you as you’re grappling with your own relationship crisis? Relational or Betrayal Trauma is a subcategory of trauma. Betrayal trauma occurs when a trusted loved one has been lying, leading a double life, and/or making choices that deeply harm you. Betrayal trauma can also occur in relationships where there is fear, abandonment, and/or emotional/physical neglect present. Relationships where there is an unknown addiction, infidelity, or emotional and physically abuse are the common examples of betrayal trauma. For more information on how betrayal is traumatic, please see my previous article
Another important category of trauma is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a complicated way of saying that even after the traumatic event has occurred—if there’s a beginning and end to the “threatening” stimulus (i.e. Discovering your partner has been having an affair or you are in car accident)—one continues to struggle with physical, mental, and emotional symptoms even after the event. The length o
f time and severity of PTSD symptoms vary greatly from person to person, depending on one’s background and the nuances of the traumatic event.
The following is the DSM-5 criteria for a PTSD diagnosis:
Exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, violence
Unwanted, upsetting memories
Emotional distress after reminder triggers
Physical reactivity after triggers
Avoidance of stimuli
Altered mood: irritability, aggression, risky or destructive behaviors, hyper-vigilance, startled reaction, trouble sleeping
While many struggling with Betrayal Trauma may not fully meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, it can still be helpful to understand that even after the betrayal has been brought into the light, one can grapple with trauma-like symptoms for weeks, months, or years beyond the trauma. These symptoms make it hard to function, regain emotional stability, and feel safe again; all things that are imperative to healing and carrying on.
How Our Bodies Experience Traumatic Events
When you are in the throes of betrayal trauma, the emotions can feel overwhelming and out-of-control. It’s important to educate yourself on how your body is responding to the perceived threats around you. Peter Levine, PhD—a trauma therapist—uses a wild animal’s escape from a predator to help us better understand how our bodies experience trauma. First, the animal senses there is a threat (i.e. a seal notices something threatening, perhaps a shark). That perceived threat triggers the fight/flight/freeze sympathetic nervous system causing a heightened alertness (i.e. the seal the shark and swims away quickly). When the body’s system is overloaded with a rapid heart rate, sprinting, and lack of oxygen, the body releases natural opiates (pain-relievers) preparing the animal for death. If the animal escapes death, it will violently shake, discharging the stimulus. The shaking is how the parasympathetic system down-regulates the physiological effects of threat response, then the animal can carry on like nothing happened. Peter Levine, asserts, that humans get stuck in the flight/fight/freeze cycle and that is where the trauma and long-term affects occur.
“Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the ‘triggering’ event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. The long-term, alarming, debilitating, and often bizarre symptoms of PTSD develop when we cannot complete the process of moving in, through and out of the "immobility" or "freezing" state.” (Waking The Tiger, p.9)
Many facets of the body’s response to trauma is involuntary. However, there are many trauma treatments that focus on slowing down the process for the clients, mitigating the involuntary responses while helping clients regain some semblance of safety and control when faced with the threat response. Trauma treatment includes various exercises and tactics used to discharge the stimulus, down regulate the threat response, and process the traumatic event. Just a few common treatment protocols are:
Types of therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Somatic Experience (SE)
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
If you feel strong, overwhelming emotions that are negatively impacting your ability to function and work through the healing process, I would encourage you to seek help from a trauma specialist. Once the trauma is explored, understood, validated the healing can begin.
“When (trauma) is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and heard the screams, the healing can begin.”
-Danielle Bernock (courtesy of Mirror of Intimacy by Alexandra Katehakis)