Divorce-Induced PTSD: A Critical Connection
by Kim Johnson
When you think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you likely think about people in the military. As far back as World War 1, there has been an awareness of the lasting impact of the trauma of war. Back then it was often described as “shell shocked.” In reality, even without going to war, humans have been exposed to traumatic events since the beginning of time.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added the diagnosis of PTSD to its mental disorder classifications. As a new identification, it was at first controversial. Significantly, it created criteria for a scientific basis and clinical expression for the concept of trauma.
PTSD is described as “long term symptoms which develop from life-threatening events” according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The National Health Service (NHS), a publicly funded health-care organization in the UK, also explains it the same way.
Naturally, it is easy to see why this label was assigned to the trauma of war.
As more and more research has been conducted, the results indicate no one needs to go to war to experience PTSD. The studies focused on the distinct differences in a specific individual’s capacity to cope with a catastrophe. While some did not develop PTSD, others developed the full-blown syndrome.
- 70% of adults experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime
- Of these, 20% will develop PTSD
- In all, about 8 million people have PTSD in a given year and 1 in 13 will develop PTSD at some point in their life
- While most statistics focus on adults, any age group can be affected
- And, it has been discovered that far more women suffer from this disorder than men
Because of new research, the disorder has been recategorized in the Classification of Mental and Behavioral Disorders. PTSD is no longer categorized as anxiety driven. Instead, it is now newly classified under Trauma and Stressor Related Disorders. This has finally opened the door for PTSD to be recognized as a possible result of divorce. There is now a definite link between the two.
Divorce and PTSD
Divorce can happen for any number of reasons. For those going through a breakup, suffering the intense feelings often associated with this event may not happen to everyone. However, if there was abuse, adultery, narcissism, or cruel and unusual behavior, the aftermath can create serious psychological trauma.
This loss can be exceptionally traumatic, especially in the case of either a prolonged or high-conflict divorce, and instances involving a sudden surprise break-up or infidelity. Deeply traumatizing, these circumstances encompass a dramatic and abrupt loss of trust. The shock locks the victim in a losing struggle to cope.
Often, victims have no idea they are suffering from symptoms indicating PTSD. This happened to me. In my case, the break-up was sudden and brutal. I’d confronted my ex-husband over an inappropriate relationship with his secretary. Yet, I didn’t think he would leave. Then one morning he wanted to talk but said only twelve words: “You were right. I’ve fallen in love with Mary* and I’m leaving.” And he just turned around, got in his car and drove away.
Being so abrupt, my brain could not comprehend what was happening. Time slowed as a thick fog of shock made it difficult to think. I could barely breathe and couldn’t eat. If I stepped outside my house, my body would literally shut down. Paralyzing terror would overwhelm my heart. I didn’t understand what was happening and thought I was losing my mind. Now I know it was PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD for Divorcees
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can start shortly after a disturbing event like a divorce. The emotional and psychological trauma shatters a normal sense of security, leaving the victim feeling helpless, numb, disconnected and unable to function normally.
Sometimes, those who experience this traumatic situation only temporarily have difficulty adjusting. Time and self-care facilitate coping as this allows the symptoms to fade. Yet for many others, the emotions persist, leaving them mired in a deep fog of pain. The fear is constant. Consumed with thoughts about the past, there is worry about the present and the future.
Specific symptoms of PTSD include:
- Recurrent, unwanted memories of the event or reliving the trauma (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams or nightmares, trouble sleeping
- Severe emotional or physical distress caused by something that reminds you of the event
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the event
- Avoiding places or people that remind you of the event
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems
- Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions and feeling emotionally numb
- Always being on guard for danger
- Using drugs or alcohol to feel better
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
Many times, these symptoms occur immediately. However, sometimes they may remain dormant until years after the episode. The intensity can vary, as well as differ from person to person. You may experience all of them or only a few, so you cannot compare what you are experiencing with someone else. The important point to remember, no matter what, if months have passed and you continue to experience severe symptoms, PTSD could be the reason.
Healing from PTSD and Divorce
Much of the information about PTSD focuses on trauma other than a break-up as the cause. So, when you are going through a divorce, it may feel strange to think of your symptoms in that context. However, it’s wise to take a long, hard look at what you’re feeling. While there certainly are normal feelings like anger, depression and shock associated with divorce, extreme and long-term emotions cannot be ignored.
The first step toward healing is to find the courage to admit the reality of your suffering. Try to be honest and consider if you’re pain is from being hurt or from being traumatized. All the emotions that make divorce so difficult are intensified by PTSD. Being depressed, anxious or isolated can make it monumental to reach out. However, in order to cope and move on with your life, you must be brave enough to try.
To begin the healing process, support groups may be an option. For one thing, it helps to realize there are some typical feelings which will occur from going through a divorce. Hearing others share their struggles can bring comfort and encouragement. Finding a church community may be helpful. Many people have found solace and comfort from spiritual direction and connections. Engaging your brain in other activities is also helpful. Try a new hobby or catch up on books you’ve been wanting to read.
Be sure to get plenty of exercise and eat healthy. Self-care is extremely important for your emotional well-being. It’s surprising how a little make-up and wearing anything but sweats can change your mood. Dig deep for the strength to do even some little things to take care of yourself.
Remember, however, PTSD is a serious condition. If your symptoms continue even after using the above suggestions, you may need professional help. Be willing to accept the help of a therapist, as this disorder is treatable.
Seeking Professional Help for Trauma
Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and even potentially re-traumatizing. Healing with the help of a therapist specializing in PTSD is often best. Finding the right counselor for you may take some effort. Finances, as well as what your insurance will cover, may limit your options. Do your homework. There may be affordable community-based providers in your area. And, don’t hesitate to treat your first few sessions as an interview of your therapist. The quality of your relationship with that person is very important. Consequently, if you feel uncomfortable, misunderstood or not respected, find another counselor.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself once you see a professional:
- Do you feel comfortable to openly discuss your problems?
- Did your therapist appear to “hear” you and understand?
- Were your feelings taken seriously or were they minimized?
- Were you treated with compassion?
- Do you feel you can trust this therapist?
PTSD is unique to each person it affects and the circumstances surrounding each diagnosis can be radically different. Be patient with yourself as you seek treatment. Allow the healing process to take its course. Surviving the issues is doable and you can improve the quality of your life moving forward.
Recovery Takes Time
Diagnosing, treating and recovering from PTSD takes time. As difficult as it may be to admit, experiencing PTSD after divorce is real. Give yourself credit for realizing you need help. Then take the steps necessary to move your journey from being stuck to a path toward recovery.
My survival from PTSD took several months because I had no idea how it was impacting me emotionally. Prayer was my main source of strength, especially in times when I could feel my body shutting down. By sheer force of will and God’s help, I pushed through the panic and fear. Slowly those physical symptoms faded. But later it was the few years of counseling that helped me regain my emotional health.
Remember, there is no right way to act after a divorce. Don’t compare your reactions to anyone else. If you are having trouble putting words to your feelings, make a list. Be willing to take medication if you need it. Try mindful practices like prayer, meditation or yoga to reset the sympathetic nervous system and regulate the release of stress hormones.
Be gentle with yourself and don’t be quick to judge. Most importantly, don’t be ashamed to ask for help and admit you cannot do this alone. Divorce or PTSD does not need to define the rest of your life.
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