Relationships

15 Signs You Are Experiencing Trauma After A Toxic Relationship

And how to heal from it.

These are the signs you're experiencing trauma after a toxic relationship.
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While many people feel down or upset when a relationship comes to an end, there's a big difference between taking a moment to pause and reflect — or even spending a few days crying — and experiencing post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS). If you're coming out of the relationship with intense baggage, hangups, or symptoms that seem similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there's a good chance you were in a toxic relationship, or had an emotionally or physically abusive partner, and are suffering as a result.

Trauma symptoms might stem from mistreatment from an abusive partner, unhealthy dynamics, or even confusion resulting from being strung along by someone who was emotionally unavailable. It could be mild. It could be intense. But recognizing the signs is a key aspect of moving on.

“Most people who leave toxic relationships report post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms,” Shari Botwin, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and trauma specialist, tells Bustle, pointing to the way they were treated by their ex. Gaslighting, manipulation, lying — it can all result in nervousness, trust issues, or the desire to isolate. The list goes on and on. Essentially, PTRS has become a "newly proposed mental health syndrome that occurs subsequent to the experience of trauma in an intimate relationship," relationship expert Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, tells Bustle. "It includes the intrusive and arousal symptoms of [PTSD] but lacks the avoidance symptoms required for a diagnosis of PTSD due to a very different mode of coping with the traumatized state from that which is characteristic of individuals with PTSD."

It takes work to move out of the trauma response, says Botwin, who notes you’ll need to re-evaluate messages you have internalized in order to access your anger. “You need a therapist, friends, or support group members to help you understand these behaviors or statements told to you are about the person who is demonstrating toxic behaviors.” (Hint: You shouldn’t blame yourself for being mistreated.)

Whether you qualify for PTRS or are simply having a difficult time moving on, these feelings can be very real, and they can prevent you from finding a healthier relationship in the future. So the sooner you can seek treatment, the better. "The treatment approach should emphasize that traumatic relationships can not only be survived, but [that] post-traumatic growth can often occur,” says Bates-Duford.

If you were in a toxic relationship, went through a breakup, and are experiencing any of the signs listed below, reach out for support ASAP so you can begin moving on.

Warning: This article contains information about abusive relationships, which some may find triggering.

1

You’re Easily Triggered

No one likes to think about their ex after a breakup, but take note if small memories seem to trigger intense emotional reactions. Maybe you hear a song, see a similar car, or get too close to a certain part of town, and just like that you’re super upset.

“If the feelings land in the category of trauma, one could [even] feel scared and have a startle response if triggered by something that reminds them of the person,” Dr. Robin T. Hornstein, PhD, a psychologist, tells Bustle.

In that case, you might jump, feel nervous, or even want to leave the situation. “After a breakup from a non-toxic relationship, you might see the same car your ex drove and have a sad or wistful response,” she says. “If the relationship was toxic, you might find that the car itself is enough to make you change plans, even if you notice it is not the same license plate.”

2

You Feel Paranoid

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Branching off of that, notice if you feel paranoid or worried that you might run into your ex — and not just because it would be annoying or weird to see them.

Hornstein says paranoia is often left over from the toxic things your ex did to control and manipulate you, such as calling your work to make sure you’re there or telling you what you could and couldn’t do. It can result in a lingering feeling of being watched or having to look over your shoulder, because that’s the type of lifestyle you became used to.

If this level of intense paranoia doesn’t go away, Hornstein suggests reaching out to friends, loved ones, and professionals for support.

3

You’re Full Of Doubt

Once a toxic relationship ends, "it’s common to feel as if you have finally 'escaped' or gotten out," Dr. Josh Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. There might be a wave of relief as you create distance and start to think about the future.

But once the newness of the breakup wears off — which might only be hours later — it's not uncommon for intense feelings of doubt to creep in. "There is such a dependency that is created in a toxic relationship that once you have escaped, it’s common to wonder — 'did I do the right thing?' or 'was this really my fault?'" Klapow says.

It's in this stage that many people get back together with their ex or try to reach out, just to make the discomfort go away. If your ex was toxic or abusive, it'll be important to give yourself plenty of time to adjust and process what you went through. It may take a lot of work, but you will eventually realize it’s better to move on.

4

You Want To Jump Back Into Another Relationship

That said, you might find that you immediately jump into a different relationship — usually one that is equally toxic — or that you feel the need to bury tough feelings by dating lots of new people at once. Rebounding is a common way to ease the pain and/or cover up intense feelings of loneliness, Klapow says, but it’s important to recognize it may be a sign of relationship trauma.

Again, it’s understandable why you’d want to start over and look for company, but give yourself time to heal before trying to move on. If you can, look into low-cost or free care facilities that could help you address what you went through. “Not examining these issues — not dealing with the trauma — positions you to walk right back into it again,” he says.

5

You Feel Guilty

Feelings of doubt and loneliness may be replaced with guilt for not having moved on sooner. “There might be a general sense of wasted time, lost days, months, years of life, and a general desire to get on with it,” says Klapow.

This is common after any failed relationship. You might wonder why you stuck around with someone who wasn’t right for you. But if toxicity is at play, the feeling will be amped up a notch. “All of this sets a person up to be in a very vulnerable state,” he says.

6

You Keep Blaming Yourself

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Due to the fact you were manipulated and gaslighted, you might even believe that you “caused” this breakup, Dr. Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. You also might worry that you drove your ex to act the way they did or feel as if you caused the breakup by being “difficult” — even though that isn’t true.

This type of relationship PTSD will cause you to over-analyze what happened and replay scenarios of how things could have been different, adds relationship expert Rori Sassoon. You’ll wonder what you could’ve done differently and feel intense guilt for not being “perfect.”

It’s hard, but redirecting your thoughts in these moments is super important. "The goal is to start re-centering yourself to focus on you and to re-pattern your attention," Sassoon says. This can be done with the help of friends or a trained therapist who can assist you in breaking out unhelpful thought cycles.

7

You Feel Like You Don’t Deserve A Healthy Relationship

Low self-esteem, to the point where you feel like you don’t deserve a happy relationship, is another sign of trauma. “Your ex-partner throughout the course of the relationship probably made you feel lesser than, talked down to you and belittled you, so you felt like you had no good qualities or anything to offer,” Schiff says. It’s yet another reason why you may feel drawn to unhealthy dynamics with others and maybe even end up with another toxic partner.

8

You Have Intrusive Thoughts

While it's OK to think about your ex as you process what happened, be on the lookout for signs you're getting obsessive. It may feel like you want to think about something else, but can’t.

"Individuals who have post-traumatic relationship disorder have a tendency to struggle with obsessive thoughts about following relationships," Naphtali Roberts, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle.

Intrusive thoughts can be vivid, scary, and often totally dictate your day. "This can often lead to distraction, acting impulsively, difficulty falling or staying asleep, or constant crying or irritability because you remember past choices,” she says.

9

You Have Nightmares

Trauma can cause you to experience intense flashbacks, where it feels like you’re transported back to a moment in your relationship and are reliving it in real-time. It can also cause nightmares where you wake up in a cold sweat with your heart racing, clinical psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo, Psy.D, tells Bustle. This is because your body and mind are still hyper-alert for signs of a problem, which makes it tough to relax. It’s also due to the trauma that has lodged itself deep in your brain.

10

You Have Trouble Trusting Yourself

If you were confident before the breakup, you might notice that you don’t know how to act afterward. You can’t make decisions, you can’t figure out what you want, and you may not know what to do next because the foundation of who you are has been so deeply impacted.

“In a toxic relationship, the other person benefits by you being dependent and then may not trust you if you show signs of being your own person, such as having a friend's night out,” Hornstein says. Your ex may have shattered your confidence, separated you from friends, or convinced you that you “need” them in some way.

This type of gaslighting and manipulation can really affect your sense of reality. It can be tough to trust your instincts afterward — until you get support.

11

You Feel Anxious & Unsettled

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"PTRS can be defined as an anxiety disorder that can occur subsequent to the experience of physical, emotional, or psychological abuse in the context of an intimate partner relationship,” says Bates-Duford.

There are so many causes of anxiety, so don't jump to any conclusions and assume you were in a toxic relationship or that you're traumatized simply because you feel anxious. But if it lines up with what you experienced in the past it might not hurt to look into it as a cause and seek treatment where necessary.

12

You Feel The Need To Apologize

"When you've been in a toxic relationship you often develop coping patterns to try to keep the chaos to a minimum," Roberts says. "One of these patterns can be saying you are sorry for all of your thoughts, feelings, or actions.”

And it can be a tough habit to shake. “Often an individual in a toxic relationship has trained their brain that by apologizing they can control their partner’s reaction patterns,” she says. “Even once an individual has left the unhealthy relationship they often can find themselves automatically apologizing to try to protect themselves from the hurt and judgment they previously experienced."

13

You Feel Confused

“You may experience this if you were constantly lied to and found out your ex was lying in a negative way,” Dr. Donna T. Novak, PsyD, a licensed psychologist, tells Bustle. “You may experience great sadness or depression, feeling like you knew someone but you truly didn't.” It can be heartbreaking and upsetting, to the point where you feel confused for a long time after the breakup.

The fact you were lied to can, for obvious reasons, also contributes to ongoing trust issues. “It is never too late to seek out the help and support you deserve,” Novak says. “The sooner you take action to work on your trauma, the better chances you will have to recover and find love within yourself and others again.”

14

You Withdraw From Friends & Family

While some people may want to surround themselves with friends and family after a traumatic relationship, it’s OK if you would prefer to be alone for a while.

“When you get out of a toxic relationship you often don't know what a secure and safe relationship feels like anymore,” Hannah Guy, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma, tells Bustle. “Due to this, you might withdraw from family and friends.”

That said, you might go the opposite direction and become anxiously attached, she says, which might look like not wanting to be left alone. “Pay attention to how this trauma is showing up in your life on a day-to-day basis,” Guy says, and let those around you know what’s up so they can offer the right kind of support.

15

You Feel Unsure In New Relationships

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If and when you do begin a new relationship, don’t be surprised if you feel unsure and unsettled. "After an individual exits a toxic relationship they often can find themselves reacting to new relationships with patterns or suspicions,” Roberts says. It’s also possible you’ll read into what your new partner says and assume they are crossing boundaries even when they aren’t.

Noticing this tendency can be the first step in moving past it. "As an individual with a toxic relationship history, it is important to be aware that you might be sensing something negative, but you may also be labeling a simple mistake as something harmful when really it’s just a natural misunderstanding in the development of this next relationship," Roberts says. It may help to let a new partner know what you’ve been through so they can avoid triggering you, and also offer support.

That said, it’s important to trust your gut. If you notice similar toxic patterns in your new partner, don’t ignore them. Trust what you’ve learned from your past relationship and don’t be afraid to end a new one if it is giving you bad vibes.

As Hornstein says, “If the person you are with sucks all the joy out of your time together, scares you, or makes you not like yourself, the best gift you can give yourself is going to therapy with or without the person and find your way back to solid ground.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.

Sources:

Shari Botwin, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker

Dr. Robin T. Hornstein, a psychologist

Dr. Josh Klapow, clinical psychologist

Dr. Holly Schiff, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist

Rori Sassoon, relationship expert

Naphtali Roberts, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist

Dr. Paul DePompo, clinical psychologist

Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford, PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, relationship expert

Dr. Donna T. Novak, PsyD, licensed psychologist

Hannah Guy, LCSW, psychotherapist