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Depression,  Relationships,  Self Help

Can relationships cause PTSD?

It was 6 months, 2 weeks and 3 days and it still hurt. For her, the pain felt deeper. Falling asleep felt like a curse, he plagued her mind even in her dreams. The conversations, messages, and eventually the break-up were memories she relived every day. She wanted a pill, like in Homecoming (the Netflix show), that would help her forget everything! In therapy, she would often ask for such a pill.

Clients often ask for quick fixes to “get rid of the pain” of a break-up. It is unbearable and often leaves us with a sense of hollowness. Some of us experience trauma caused by a broken relationship. It is not something you can shake off, or get over. Break-ups often causes a severe break down in one’s emotional functioning, and can sometimes lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.  Post-traumatic relationship stress can be characterized by obsessions, nightmares, distrust, flashbacks, changes in appetite and weight and sexual promiscuity.

However, there are ways one can cope with the stress of the end of a relationship.

Breaking Thoughts:

Obsessing – this is something most of us do after a breakup. The constant thoughts about the relationship, replaying conversations and constantly thinking about your ex is needless to say – unhealthy. You often find yourself trying to search for things you did wrong or wish for better ways to handle arguments. In such situations you often find yourself fine combing your relationship with the intent to find reasons to blame yourself, hoping this will help you “fix it”. These thoughts are often aggravated by a poor self-concept. Self-blame, and self-judgment often flood your mind in such situations. 

How do you cope with obsessing?

The most effective tool to cope with obsessing and overthinking is to constantly bring yourself back to the present – here and now, be mindful. Bring yourself back to the present by asking these 5 questions – identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. This engages all your senses and allows you to focus on the present, thereby ensuring you will neither fixate on the past nor daydream about the future.

Being in the present is the most powerful tool you can use while working through the trauma of previous relationship. This is a way to remind yourself that the trauma of the relationship was a part of your past, and you have more control in creating a healthier present.

Breaking Patterns:

Familiar Situations – Very often a break-up triggers memories and associations you never knew existed, everything reminds you of the person, a bus stop or a coffee house. You find yourself reacting negatively to things you used to do with your ex. These associations often cause strong hostile reactions.

Distrust – relationships in which there was distrust in the form of abuse (physical/ emotional/ financial), cheating, threats, chronic lying, or narcissism often leave you emotionally disturbed. This often causes a heightened sense of suspicion and your ability to ever trust again is hampered.

How do you break free from old patterns?

You begin by not taking any blame or responsibility of your partner’s actions. It is common for us to internalize feelings of rejection because as individuals we tend to take responsibility for the actions of others. Our immediate reaction to such situations is to “change ourselves” – change the way we look, tolerate bad behaviour, and modify who we are. This is the least helpful kind of change. In such a situation it can be helpful to:

  1. Go on a vacation – going on a busy vacation tricks the mind into believing time has passed thus allowing us to heal quickly. Try visiting a new place that has a lot of activities that can keep you engaged through the day. Breaking away from the daily routine and sites allows you to return with clarity.
  2.  Learn a new skill – spend some time investing in you. Learn a new skill or take up a new hobby, it’s a great way to engage your mind and if you’re good at the skill it will help restore confidence. 
  3.  Connect with old friends and make new ones – connecting with old friends creates a safe and supportive environment but it is also equally important to break away from old patterns and meet new people. This will remind you and give you courage to trust again and break down the walls of emotional betrayal.

Catharsis from the Sub-conscious

Nightmares – this is your subconscious mind exposing your vulnerability to the situation. Often these night terrors depict harm and hostile situations with the ex that leaves you with cold sweats and an uncomfortable nauseating feeling in the morning.

Flashbacks – repeatedly reliving memories with absolute clarity like it just happened. This may take the form of auditory or visual hallucinations, in certain situations, it can get specific to reliving the smell.  A flashback may be temporary and you may maintain some connection with the present moment or you may lose all awareness of what’s going on around you, being taken completely back to your traumatic event.

How do you train the subconscious mind?

The most effective way to cope with this is by experiencing, processing, and releasing. Maintain a journal where you spend 15 minutes writing out your thoughts, but do not go back and read it. This allows you to unload, express freely, and often let go. Flashbacks are often caused by a trigger. These triggers could be a word, odour, or a situation. It is important for you to identify the trigger and work through it. You can either limit your exposure to these triggers, and if that is not possible (which is often the case) you can devise coping strategies. Effective coping strategies include deep breathing, reconditioning the trigger with a new emotion and gradual exposure to it.

Breaking Behaviours

Appetite/ Weight – appetite is a good indicator of your emotions, and rapidly gaining or losing weight can be a sign something is wrong.

Sleep – sleep cycles change, we tend to either sleep too much or too little. We either enter an escapist mode where we sleep too much because facing reality becomes too difficult or falling asleep becomes too difficult because of our anxious mind.

Sexual promiscuity – irresponsible and excessive indulgence in sex with multiple partners creates the temporary illusion of being free. However, this has long-term psychological effects and often puts one in a dangerous situation.

How do you initiate and maintain healthy behaviours?

While most people choose to consume copious amounts of alcohol post a breakup, it’s better to stay away from the bottle. Monitoring alcohol intake ensures clarity of thought, responsible decisions and better sleep. The basics need to be in place; a healthy diet where you eat every 3 hours, a reduced intake of caffeine and digital detox. Have a fixed day and night routine that helps condition better productivity and sleep. Try having a heavy meal, a shower and listen to a meditative track before you sleep. This ensures you are focusing on yourself, and your healing.

Break-ups are never easy; ending a traumatic relationship causes significant emotional distress. It requires time, dedication, and direction for one to truly heal from a broken relationship. It’s never the duration of the relationship that matters, but the intensity of emotion experienced while together.

It is important to find healthy ways to cope with the loss a relationship, and speaking to someone always helps! Invest in yourself.

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