Many people think of trauma in terms of military time, car accidents, experiencing crimes, cruelty, aggression, witnessing death, and other large-scale events. Trauma can also be valid and equally impacting on a smaller scale. Sometimes experiencing chronic feelings of discouragement within our family can be traumatic. Going through a tough breakup with a partner can be traumatic. Moving away from home can also be traumatic for some. When we think about trauma in the mental health field, we don’t really consider the size or details of the events as much as we consider the lasting impact the events have had on the psychological well-being of the person. Generally speaking, trauma is a term used to describe the lasting negative emotional consequences that have resulted from a distressing experience.
Some of the emotional consequences wreak havoc on our relationships. For example, we may feel vulnerable and overwhelmed about what is safe, making it more difficult to trust others, even those we have trusted in the past. This is because trauma significantly challenges a person’s sense of security in the world. Our confidence may be shaken and the way we see ourselves may be different. In addition, anxiety and depression are common symptoms following a traumatic experience, which both are known to negatively impact self-esteem. When we feel anxious, down, and overwhelmed, we tend to question our worth. Believing that we are not worthy of relationships, love, belonging, intimacy, and connection with others increases the likelihood that we will struggle in relationships. We may isolate ourselves, remain guarded, or even engage in behaviors that sabotage our relationships due to feeling undeserving.
In addition, we might be more defensive following trauma. Defensiveness is a natural reaction to painful experiences because our mind is trying to protect us from further pain. As we try to protect ourselves, we may feel threatened more easily and we may be more hypervigilant of our surroundings due to the impact trauma has had on our central nervous system. This directly impacts our relationships because our defensiveness can make us feel like others are intentionally attacking us even when they may not be. We may become angry more easily or we may lash out at others. Defensiveness can also make it difficult to engage in active listening, meaning that we will likely struggle to engage in healthy conversations.
Healthy relationships can also be a struggle due to feelings of helplessness and feeling less capable of managing challenges that come our way. Trauma makes us feel defeated and sometimes we blame ourselves or believe that we “should have” done more to protect us from the trauma. We must remember that these types of maladaptive beliefs are not helpful because the truth is that the trauma was not our fault. We did not deserve the trauma. We did not ask for it. We did not have time to prepare for it. It’s so important to remember that we did the best that we could at the time. If we slip into feelings of self-blame, it’s going to be hard to feel confident in our ability to manage other challenges in our future. Particularly in relationships, we may feel less capable of solving interpersonal conflicts, we may struggle to manage disagreements, and we may feel overwhelmed by the “work” that comes with maintaining close bonds with others. This is especially true for relationships with our partners. Being in a relationship with a significant other requires commitment to each other’s needs. For a trauma survivor, this may feel like too much to manage. Learning how to regain your confidence and decrease feelings of helplessness can help you overcome this challenge.
Trauma survivors also might feel guilty or ashamed about what has happened to them. We may desperately need a safe space to open up to others but shy away from being authentic in our relationships due to fear of being a burden to others. We may feel conflicted between wanting to be honest while also wanting to retreat inwardly to avoid potential harm from others. Trauma tricks us into feeling like nobody else will ever understand what we have gone through. We may not want to risk feeling abandoned or neglected, meaning that we may stay silent and keep to ourselves. Consequently, this often makes us feel worse. It’s important for trauma recovery to challenge these beliefs and find safe spaces where we can truly be authentic and open about what we’ve gone through. Talking to a therapist is often a great first step toward healing because therapy is the one space in your life where you can truly receive unconditional positive regard from a completely non-judgmental professional. Learning how to trust a therapist in a safe space can help us generalize skills for trusting others outside of therapy.
Finally, trauma can wreak havoc on our emotional regulation skills. Emotional regulation refers to our ability to effectively manage and respond to a wide spectrum of emotions, including intense emotions like anger or deep sadness. In other words, emotional regulation skills allow us to exert control over the ups and downs of life without breaking down. Trauma disrupts our mental health in such a profound way that it becomes more difficult for us to manage emotional waves. Experiencing intense emotions after a traumatic experience can result in mental breakdowns and we may need extra time to recover. We may be more likely to cancel plans with our friends, we may need to ask for more patience from others, or we may need to restructure our everyday routines. Please don’t feel guilty for these life changes. These are natural adjustments that you may need to make following trauma. As you navigate what works best for you in managing your mental health, your relationships will likely be impacted, but it’s so important to prioritize your needs. A big part of self-care following trauma is knowing how to manage your symptoms as you work on recovery. It’s perfectly okay (and responsible) to create lifestyle changes if needed to maximize your healing process.
No matter what you experience, it’s important to recognize that your relationships may be affected due to trauma symptoms – NOT character flaws. You should not blame yourself. You are not struggling in relationships on purpose. You should not feel guilty or ashamed. You are deserving of healthy relationships that lead you to feeling secure and connected with others. It takes time to heal from trauma, but working on your trauma recovery and learning to trust others again can help you regain your sense of social connection. Rebuilding relationships and discovering new ways to connect is worthwhile and possible with practice, patience, and time.
Written by Lauren Presutti