7 Signs of Unhealed Relationship Trauma
Hi Psych2Go-ers! We all end up leaving relationships, jobs, and friendships. Sometimes it ends up being a blessing because they weren’t right to us anyway. Or we find that we were put in the situation to learn a major lesson. Maybe the situation ended because the timing was all wrong.
Whatever the case, most of us process the loss in our own way and try again.
But what if you can’t “move on” or “get over it”? No matter what you try to do so you can move forward, something about the relationship keeps you feeling stuck. No matter where you are or what new relationships or jobs you find, it feels like you are still back in the past toxic situation.
What gives? Is this you just not being able to get it together, or is there something a little more sinister at play?
Enter Unhealed Relationship Trauma
Unhealed relationship trauma is far deeper than you being relationship-challenged. Here is a quick definition of trauma: Anything that happened, which should not have happened. Anything that did not happen, which should have happened.
This definition is super broad because trauma can take countless forms. In terms of your relationships with others, this can mean:
- The friend who was constantly putting you down.
- The ex who constantly cheated on you, but made you feel like the crazy one.
- The roommate who made you walk on eggshells because you never knew what would upset them.
- The boss who liked to pick apart everything you did until you second-guessed yourself and apologized for things you never did.
- The coworker who liked to turn people on each other with gossip, then played the victim when confronted.
- Your ex never taking your side when their family would start drama.
- Being blamed or having to clean up after others’ drama and bad behavior.
- Emotional, verbal, mental, financial, spiritual, or sexual abuse.
- Domestic violence.
- Others not meeting your emotional needs due to neglect, passive-aggressive behavior, pouting or withholding love.
The difference between trauma and stressful situations is subtle but important. Stressful situations end and leave fewer exit wounds than in traumatic situations. A traumatic situation involves a great deal of fear, terror, and powerlessness. The stress involved in a traumatic situation tends to be harsh and ongoing. Also, the after-effects of trauma tend to get worse over time.
If you are wondering if what you experienced was more traumatic than stressful, keep reading. Before we begin, though, please understand the goal of this post is not to trigger you. The goal is to help you understand relationship trauma and possibly how this might apply to you. Tell us in the comments below if you want a video on this, or if you feel that we left out something important.
7 Signs of Unhealed Relationship Trauma
- Annoying physical symptoms. All of us have that friend who loses a ton of weight after a relationship ends because they just can’t eat. Then there are those people who feel completely drained after a relationship ends. Your emotions affect your body under normal circumstances. However, Tull (2020) reported unresolved trauma can make these normal aches and pains worse (Tull, 2020). This seems to stem from trauma putting your body on constant high alert, which is due to the activation of your physiological fight-flight-or-freeze response.
Here are a few more facts about your body’s stress response:
- Your body’s stress response has three stages: alarm, resistance, exhaustion. Hans Selye called this cycle General Adaptation Syndrome (Goldstein, 2010).
- The fight-or-flight response is considered the alarm stage.
- The fight-flight-or-freeze response starts in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (Goldstein, 2010).
- The SNS tells the endocrine system to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to deal with the immediate threat (APA, 2020).
A toxic relationship is stressful for your mind and body. Your body’s stress response was only meant to last for a short amount of time, but as several experts have noted, putting your body under stress for long periods of time can lead to (Tull 2020):
- Increased inflammation.
- Heart attack.
- A weakened immune system.
- Respiratory issues.
- Chronic pain.
You might be asking yourself, “But why would I still feel so freaked out after the relationship is over?”
Although researchers cannot definitively predict who will develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many believe repeated exposure to stress may make someone more vulnerable to these symptoms (Bisson et al, 2015). Some of the stressors that may leave you more vulnerable to these symptoms include:
- You had to walk on eggshells to avoid a fight.
- Persistent trust issues in the relationship.
- Constantly having to prove you weren’t cheating.
- Physical, verbal, or emotional abuse.
- Having to hide some—or all—of your relationship from your loved ones.
2. Your body and mind feel disconnected. Since you and your ex broke up, do people tell you that you have your head in the clouds? Maybe you started feeling like your life was some movie you were watching from the outside when the relationship started getting bad. These are features of dissociation, or feeling detached from reality. Farina et al (2019) noted people who seek help for trauma often report feelings of dissociation (Farina et al, 2019).
Here are a few other facts about dissociation:
- Sigmund Freud described dissociation as a defense mechanism your mind uses to keep you safe from triggers and uncomfortable events.
- Dissociation involves the disruption of your perceptions, memory processing, and emotions (Bedard-Gilligan and Zoellner, 2012).
- Dissociation reactions include acting or feeling as though a traumatic event is still occurring (Bisson et al, 2015).
- The American Psychiatric Association now recognizes dissociative PTSD (D-PTSD), which includes a feeling that things are not real (derealization) and feeling as though your thoughts and feelings are not yours (depersonalization) (Farina et al, 2019).
3. Your brain works differently. After getting out of a toxic or traumatic relationship, you might notice that you get a lot of “brain fog”, forgetfulness, or racing thoughts. This is because the stress from a toxic relationship—and your body’s response to the stress—is ongoing. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol were not meant to be in your system longer than a few minutes at a time. Constantly having these hormones released into your system changes the way the following parts of your brain function (Bremner, 2006):
- Hypothalamus: regulates your body’s homeostasis.
- Hippocampus: helps regulate memory, emotion, and learning.
- Amygdala: helps you correctly perceive emotions, control aggression, and store memories so you can learn from experience.
- Prefrontal cortex: helps you focus your attention when needed, predict consequences, and anticipate future events.
When these parts of your brain are changed due to the stress response, you are probably going to notice:
- You cannot concentrate.
- Your memory stinks.
- You feel out of control or have racing thoughts.
- You have a hard time figuring out how you feel.
- You get frustrated or angry easily.
- You have no real attention span.
4. Major trust issues, even with people you know and love. Raise your hand if you have ever been here:
It took months of gathering the courage and forcing yourself to have “the talk”, but you finally left that push-pull relationship after way too long. You gave yourself time to heal and get back into all the cool hobbies your ex hated. You feel healthy for the first time since things started to go sour.
You like yourself, as well as the cute long term friend-turned-bae you’ve been seeing for months. You guys have known each other for a while. You finish each other’s sentences…
So why do you feel the need to look at their phone? They have never lied to you or played the head games your ex did. Why do you get so uncomfortable when they tell you for the millionth time that they only want you?
In addition to changing the way parts of your brain function, the trauma brought on by a toxic relationship messes with your ability to feel safe with another person (Lachmann, 2017). This anxiety might cause your mind to come up with every doomsday scenario you can in order to protect yourself (Lachmann, 2017).
5. You might pick fights or engage in risky business. Have you ever noticed that you might be a little more impatient or sensitive after a stressful time? Multiply that feeling by 100. Now imagine that feeling lasts for months. Now imagine if this was combined with not being able to trust yourself, emotional flashbacks, or even intrusive memories. How do you think you would deal with people if that’s how you felt ALL. THE. TIME?
This is how a lot of people feel when they have lingering relationship trauma.
According to Grattan (2019), this is why feelings of aggression and anger are relatively common in people with unresolved trauma (Grattan et al, 2019.) The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (2019) reported anger is a common response to trauma because anger is an emotion that helps us survive (U.S. VA, 2019).
Lingering trauma often makes us feel like we are still in the toxic relationship through emotional flashbacks and all of the biochemical changes created by the toxicity. This may make us feel like we have to fight to survive, even if your present situation is perfectly safe (U.S. VA, 2019). Berg (2019) stated people who experience dissociation as a result of trauma are more likely to lash out aggressively than those who are not prone to dissociation (Berg, 2019).
But what about risky behavior? Although the reasons many trauma survivors engage in risky behavior are unclear, researchers have noticed a definite link between trauma and certain types of risky behavior. Here are some quick stats:
- You are over 30% more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol if you have survived trauma (Gielen et al, 2012).
- Many survivors use drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate overwhelming emotions as a result of the trauma due to how drugs and alcohol affect brain chemistry (NIDA, 2018).
- Tagay (2014) found that up to 23.1% of women treated for anorexia nervosa show symptoms of trauma or PTSD (Tagay et al, 2014).
- Up to 25.5% of women treated for bulimia show symptoms of trauma or PTSD (Tagay et al, 2014).
- Over 90% of individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa or bulimia report at least one potentially traumatizing event (PTE) in their lives, regardless of whether they show symptoms of trauma or PTSD (Tagay et al, 2014).
- Trauma can make you more likely to engage in self-harm or risky sexual behavior (Contractor et al, 2017).
- Researchers believe trauma survivors sometimes behave in risky ways to seek sensations—aka “get a rush”—as a way to feel like they have control or to “get a break” from trauma symptoms, such as replaying the trauma, depression, or overanalyzing their faults (Contractor et al, 2017).
6. A constant sense of shame. Have you ever looked back on a relationship and thought:
- “Wow, that was dumb. What was I thinking?!”
- “I messed up that time.”
- “Okay, I could’ve done things differently.”
- “I totally missed those red flags.”
Most people have a few relationship regrets, but survivors of relationship trauma tend to take it further. Rather than thinking they did something dumb or shameful, their minds go in a different direction:
- “Wow, I’m a horrible person.”
- “Why didn’t I see it before? I’m so stupid for staying.”
- “I’m such a doormat.”
- “That relationship would have been perfect if I wasn’t so lazy/ugly/stupid/ignorant/angry…”
- “Okay, that was toxic, but I deserved everything that happened.”
The big difference here boils down to guilt and shame. Many people use the terms of guilt and shame as if they mean the same thing, but there’s a major difference. Guilt means you feel bad about something you did. Shame means you feel bad about who or what you are.
Like all of our emotions, guilt, and shame have a purpose. Guilt and shame make us feel bad to keep us from acting in selfish ways that hurt others. However, too much shame or guilt can not only be paralyzing but is also associated with trauma (Saraiya and Lopez-Castro, 2016). Research has shown toxic shame can make the mental, emotional, and physical symptoms of trauma worse (Saraiya and Lopez-Castro, 2016). Stotz (2015) echoed these findings, further stating there is a strong relationship between how much toxic shame someone is experiencing and how bad their trauma symptoms are (Stotz et al, 2015).
Here are some signs you may be experiencing toxic shame related to the relationship, according to Shaughnessy (2018):
- Feeling “stuck” and unable to move forward after the relationship.
- A constant feeling of being helpless or powerless to change anything in your life.
- Knowing something is wrong, but not knowing what to do.
- Feeling unable to stand up for yourself.
- Feeling unable to set boundaries with others.
- Constantly thinking about your mistakes and things you would rather forget.
- Not wanting others to know you.
- Going out of your way to avoid situations where you think you will be judged or humiliated, even if there is no evidence this will happen.
- Setting overly harsh or unrealistic boundaries with others.
- Feeling defensive or agitated when talking to others.
- Your expectations of others have gotten higher.
- People tell you that you are expecting too much of yourself.
- You are overly focused on your appearance or proving yourself “worthy” to others.
- You have stopped making any effort at all regarding your appearance, self-care, or keeping a daily routine.
- Constantly second-guessing or overanalyzing all of your thoughts, feelings, and decisions.
- Feeling unworthy, unqualified, or like an imposter.
- Going out of your way to humiliate, yell at, or find something wrong with others.
7. You react physically to emotional triggers. Have you ever heard a song or saw a picture that made you feel nostalgic? Did you feel teary-eyed or did it make you smile? We all have those pictures, movies, songs, foods, places, colors, etc. that can take us back to a different time in our lives.
But when you have unhealed relationship trauma, triggers that seem normal take a much darker turn. McFarlane (2010) found that these triggers become more intense over time as the memories associated with the trauma become more intrusive (McFarlane, 2010). Researchers believe these physical reactions to emotional triggers are due to the role of the amygdala and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the stress response (McFarlane, 2010).
A physical reaction to a trauma trigger might look like:
- Shortness of breath and sweating when your boss lectures or questions you.
- You get nauseous when you have to set a boundary with your current significant other.
- Certain songs or phrases give you anxiety.
- You feel sick when you see or smell certain foods.
- You start getting chest pains or shaking when people innocently bring up your old line of work or your ex’s religion.
So What Can We Do About It?
There is no magic cure for trauma or the chaos it dumps into your life. As with grief and loss, there is no “just getting over it.” However, you can get the help you need. It is totally possible to process the traumatic events, learn to work through depression and anxiety, and deal with your triggers. Here are some trauma therapies and self-care tips:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help you understand the relationship between the thoughts and feelings surrounding the event and when the triggers happen.
- Yoga helps you use your breath and mind/body awareness to work through stress, as well as work through your physical aches and pains.
- Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of trauma therapy that helps you relearn what it means to feel safe.
- Mindfulness-based CBT incorporates Eastern meditations and philosophies to help you view your triggers and the traumatic events more objectively.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) incorporates aspects of CBT, MCBT, and critical thinking to help you relearn how to regulate your emotions.
- Talk to a psychiatrist about possible medications for any underlying depression or anxiety.
- Online support group forums or trauma support groups can provide you with a safe place to process how you’re feeling with others who have been through the same thing.
- Meditation apps or videos on YouTube can help you get that quick Zen fix to practice calm.
- Writing in a journal can help you get any anxiety or intrusive memories out. Tell us below if you want journal prompts for this.
- Other Psych2Go articles and videos have also touched on the topic of trauma. They have great information and can be a wonderful place to start learning.
Trauma is deeper than being stuck in the past. The symptoms of unhealed relationship trauma can hurt you mentally, emotionally, socially, and even physically. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By taking the time to learn about what you’ve experienced you can start figuring out how you can start healing. Your healing journey may not go in a straight line and it certainly won’t be perfect. And that’s fine, just as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Was there anything in the article you could relate to, or found helpful? Tell us about it!
Please don’t be afraid to reach out to an online community, other Psych2go-ers, a friend, or a qualified professional if it becomes too much. Remember, there is help out there!
Spicevicious is a mental health professional by day, tarot reader by night. You can check out her blog at https://thespiceisright.wordpress.com/tag/spicevicious/ for predictions, tarot and spell info, and off-beat observations of the human condition. As always, any information provided here is for entertainment purposes only. If you need mental health counseling or treatment, please contact your insurance company, local college’s student counseling clinic, county crisis line, or keep up with Psych2Go for more information.
- Bedard-Gilligan M, Zoellner LA. Dissociation and memory fragmentation in post-traumatic stress disorder: an evaluation of the dissociative encoding hypothesis. Memory (Hove, England). 2012;20(3):277-299. DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2012.655747.
- Berg, J. (2019). Open Journal of Trauma: Trauma-related aggression – Dissociation or psychosis. Retrieved from https://www.peertechz.com/articles/OJT-3-117.php
- Bisson, J. I., Cosgrove, S., Lewis, C., & Robert, N. P. (2015). Post-traumatic stress disorder. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 351, h6161. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6161
- Bremner J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461.
- Canan, F., & North, C. S. (2019). Dissociation and disasters: A systematic review. World journal of psychiatry, 9(6), 83–98. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v9.i6.83
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/ Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
- Contractor, A. A., Weiss, N. H., Dranger, P., Ruggero, C., & Armour, C. (2017). PTSD’s risky behavior criterion: Relation with DSM-5 PTSD symptom clusters and psychopathology. Psychiatry research, 252, 215–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.03.008
- De Bellis, M. D., & Zisk, A. (2014). The biological effects of childhood trauma. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 23(2), 185–vii. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002
- Farina, B., Liotti, M., & Imperatori, C. (2019). The Role of Attachment Trauma and Disintegrative Pathogenic Processes in the Traumatic-Dissociative Dimension. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 933. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00933
- Gielen, N., Havermans, R. C., Tekelenburg, M., & Jansen, A. (2012). Prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among patients with substance use disorder: it is higher than clinicians think it is. European journal of psychotraumatology, 3, 10.3402/ejpt, v3i0, 17734.
- Goldstein D. S. (2010). Adrenal responses to stress. Cellular and molecular neurobiology, 30(8), 1433–1440. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10571-010-9606-9
- Grattan, R. E., Lara, N., Botello, R. M., Tryon, V. L., Maguire, A. M., Carter, C. S., & Niendam, T. A. (2019). A History of Trauma is Associated with Aggression, Depression, Non-Suicidal Self-Injury Behavior, and Suicide Ideation in First-Episode Psychosis. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(7), 1082. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8071082
- Kleber R. J. (2019). Trauma and Public Mental Health: A Focused Review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 451. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00451 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6603306/
- Lachmann, S. (2017). Psychology Today: When Trauma Affects Your Trust in Your Relationship. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/me-we/201704/when-trauma-affects-your-trust-in-your-relationship
- McFarlane A. C. (2010). The long-term costs of traumatic stress: intertwined physical and psychological consequences. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 9(1), 3–10. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2051-5545.2010.tb00254.x
- Saraiya, T., & Lopez-Castro, T. (2016). Ashamed and Afraid: A Scoping Review of the Role of Shame in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Journal of clinical medicine, 5(11), 94. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm5110094
- Shaughnessy, M. J. (2018). Integrative Literature Review on Shame. Nursing Science Quarterly, 31(1), 86–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894318417741120
- Sherin, J. E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of psychological trauma. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 13(3), 263–278.
- Stotz, S. (2015). National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26105045/
- Tagay, S., Schlottbohm, E., Reyes-Rodriguez, M. L., Repic, N., & Senf, W. (2014). Eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, and psychosocial resources. Eating disorders, 22(1), 33–49. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640266.2014.857517
- Tull, M. (2020). VeryWell Mind: How PTSD Relates to Physical Health Issues. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/ptsd-and-physical-health-2797522