The development of PTSD following a traumatic event can make it difficult to move past the pain, fear, and horror of that moment, hindering one’s ability to naturally grow and evolve with both new and existing relationships. Treatment can be a powerful tool in managing and mitigating the effects of PTSD.
The indelible impact of trauma can have ripple effects that extend through every aspect of our lives. For some, these effects will naturally fade with time and support, and life will continue on as before. But for others, the way that they experience the world, perceive what is happening around them, and react to people and events will be completely reshaped in the wake of trauma, making relationships with others particularly challenging. For people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and their loved ones, understanding how PTSD affects relationships and identifying and managing PTSD symptoms can help maintain personal connections and strengthen partnerships.
Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, or by having repeated exposure to details of such events. Traumatic events usually involve the threat of harm or actual injury or death. These include events like:
- Warfare or state violence
- Physical or sexual assault
- Traffic accidents
- Domestic violence
- Child abuse
- Natural disaster
For some, symptoms of PTSD will begin soon after the incident, while others may suppress traumatic memories and not experience symptoms until years later. PTSD symptoms can manifest very differently, but are often long-lasting and have a significant negative impact on a person’s quality of life and relationships with others.
What are Symptoms of PTSD?
Symptoms of PTSD can be broadly categorised into four different types. It is common for people to experience several different types of symptoms, with varying levels of severity. The nature of the trauma that people experience may also influence what type of symptoms they have.
Type 1: Avoidance
Characterised by a strong urge to repress or forget the traumatic event, people with these symptoms will try to avoid any contact with people, places, things, or activities that may trigger memories of the event. They may also refuse to discuss their trauma, try not to think about it, or attempt to bury their feelings about what happened.
Type 2: Intrusion
Extremely realistic flashbacks and nightmares are another symptom of PTSD. These vivid memories can make people feel as if they are re-living the event, repeatedly experiencing the pain, horror and terror of their trauma.
Type 3: Changes in Mood and Thought
Some people may experience blank spots in their memories about the traumatic event, or have distorted thinking about it that causes them to wrongly blame themselves or others for what happened. People may have deep and persistent feelings of guilt, shame, horror, sadness and fear, have a negative self-image, and be unable to feel happiness, satisfaction or peace.
Type 4: Changes in Reaction
Trauma can cause dramatic differences in the ways people react to everyday interactions, situations, and settings. This can include disruptions in the ability to concentrate, or problems with sleep patterns. PTSD can also manifest in frequent angry outbursts, long bouts of irritability, and reckless or self-destructive behaviour. It can also cause people to be easily startled, or overly watchful of their surroundings.
People living with PTSD may experience other types of symptoms as well. PTSD commonly co-occurs with other mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and memory problems, and symptoms of these disorders may also be present. PTSD can also have effects on physical health, and some may experience persistent physical pain or ailments related to the disorder.
How Does PTSD Impact Relationships?
Meaningful and lasting interpersonal relationships involve thoughtful navigation of each individual’s experiences and perspectives, and a commitment to understanding the complexities that every person possesses. In some cases, PTSD presents a specific set of challenges to aspects of relationship-building which can cause issues in maintaining relationships. Key areas of relationships that can be affected by PTSD include communication, avoidance, attachment, intimacy, and sex drive.
Challenges with Communication
Good communication in any relationship, whether personal or professional, is essential in building understanding, highlighting needs, and resolving problems that may arise. Symptoms of PTSD can directly and significantly affect people’s ability to communicate. This can include an unwillingness or inability to talk about certain issues or emotions, or disproportionate reactions to attempts at communication by another person. Unpredictable outbursts of anger or irritability can also make others hesitant to initiate communication. PTSD symptoms can also affect one’s ability to think clearly or solve problems, which can cause additional challenges in communicating with others.
Tendency towards Avoidance
People who have experienced trauma may struggle with triggers – things, places, people, or events that activate painful memories or flashbacks. To dodge triggers, some people with PTSD will try to avoid certain social settings or public places, and may be unable or unwilling to explain clearly why they need to do this. This can result in confusion and conflict in a relationship, as well as isolation from others.
Struggles in Forming Attachments
PTSD can leave a person with deep feelings of distrust and fear that put up barriers in forming attachments. In some cases, people with PTSD will disassociate from their trauma by numbing themselves from their feelings, causing them to feel detached both from themselves and others. Others will react to PTSD by attempting to protect and control their environment and those around them, becoming demanding and smothering in a relationship.
Lack of Intimacy
Intimacy, whether physical or emotional, is about being able to express needs and respond to the needs of others. Symptoms of PTSD like repressed emotional responses, detachment, and inability to feel happiness can have significant impacts on being able to build intimacy with a partner.
Problems with Sex Drive
For someone who has developed PTSD in relation to sexually-related trauma, sexual activity can be a trigger, which can be challenging in developing romantic relationships. Other aspects of PTSD, such as distrust of others, feeling unsafe in certain situations, negative self-image, lack of sleep, and problems feeling happy or joyful can also negatively impact sex drive.
While PTSD can present challenges to a relationship, many people with PTSD or living with someone with PTSD are able to forge positive, lasting partnerships. Understanding and managing symptoms, and taking advantage of professional support when needed, can help all parties to find solutions and move forward in a healthy, healing way.
Building Healthy Relationships with PTSD
When partners have a curiosity and commitment to better understanding themselves and each other, opportunities for growth, healing, and happiness abound. With PTSD, an important first step is recognising PTSD symptoms and understanding what is behind them in order to figure out how to best address them. Seeing a mental health professional can be enormously helpful in identifying and analysing symptoms and proposing ways to manage and alleviate stress and triggers.
For loved ones or partners of people with PTSD, professional support is useful in constructively processing their own feelings and issues with the relationship. A therapist can help brainstorm effective styles of communication and support, and offer informed advice on how to best move forward when they are feeling stuck or unsure of what to do next.
It is important to remember that in cases where PTSD symptoms put someone at risk, whether from self-harm or potential violence towards others, it is critical to immediately seek safety and outside assistance.
Learning to Live and Love with PTSD at The Dawn
The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in Thailand offers holistic, residential treatment programmes for people who want to improve their mental health. The Dawn provides customised treatment plans developed with our clients and guided by an experienced, team of internationally-trained specialists in order to provide effective treatment specific to the unique needs of each client.
Call The Dawn today to learn more about our trauma treatment programme and how we can help you recover from PTSD.