Trauma & Narcissistic Abuse (and why you might feel stuck...)
Updated: Sep 23
There is no doubt that being in a toxic relationship with a narcissist is traumatic. Narcissistic abuse and gaslighting are particularly maddening and traumatising forms of psychological abuse.
What is Trauma?
In basic terms 'trauma' is an experience, whether it's a one-off event, series of events or an ongoing situation or relationship that fundamentally threatens your sense of safety or security. Experiencing a mixture of the two is known as complex PTSD or C-PTSD.
Being with a narcissist (or an active addict or a partner with emotionally unstable or anti-social-type personality disorders) is highly and chronically stressful, often unpredictable, abusive, neglectful, involves lies and betrayal, rejection and punishment...
You rarely know where you stand with a narcissist so it's impossible to ever really feel safe and secure in the relationship. Without the ability to rest in a safe or secure, stable, containing or trusting relationship your nervous system then never gets a chance to calm or settle.
Instead you find yourself living in a more or less permanent state of heightened arousal. You feel on edge, are jumpy, anxious, emotional, tearful, cranky and prone to further symptoms of stress and trauma.
Narcissistic Abuse & Trauma
Living with unprocessed trauma can at times be confusing, scary and paralysing - and is often a factor that can keep people trapped in destructive and unhealthy relationship patterns. This is usually the part that people can't see or understand when they simply suggest "Just leave them!".
Often I work with clients who have endured years of relationship abuse and although they are well aware of the damage, they find themselves unable to end or leave such harmful situations. This in itself can be painful and confusing. In these cases, knowledge, information and rational thinking are simply not enough to breakthrough to positive change. If unprocessed trauma is getting in the way of you making healthy choices for yourself or getting in the way of you holding healthy boundaries, please know first of all that this is not your fault. It is very common to be left feeling confused as to why you can have information and even recognise and name abuse, yet still feel terrified, guilty, obliged or paralysed, unable to do anything about it, or if things have ended, you can feel stuck and have difficulty moving on. This is sometimes indicative of complex trauma. The struggles of C-PTSD following an abusive relationship are no reflection of effort, willpower or character. It's complicated and it's helpful to get specialist professional help.
Symptoms of Complex PTSD in Narcissistic Abuse include:
* Feeling stuck (and confused about why).
* Having nightmares or flashbacks.
* High level of hyperarousal; anxiety, nervousness, feeling jumpy, obsessive thinking, racing thoughts, feeling scared, agitated, stressed, overwhelmed, emotional, etc.
* Difficulties controlling emotions.
* Imagining 'worse-case' scenarios.
* Guilt / Shame.
* Feeling numb / zoning out / disconnected / dissociative.
* Fatigue & extreme tiredness.
* Physical manifestation of trauma and abuse; eg. headaches, tummy aches, chest pains, dizziness, tingling limbs, nausea, IBS, unexplained physical or somatic ailments...
* Unhealthy coping strategies - self-harm, eating issues, alcohol, drug, prescription meds abuse.
* Suicidal thoughts / fantasies.
Treating Complex PTSD
A common state many people living with C-PTSD find is a preference or desire to be self-reliant and due to trust issues (as a result of traumatic relationship experiences) tend to want to address and work through their problems alone. It's understandable to feel that way, however I would suggest (and speaking from my own experience) that finding a safe support group or therapist who you feel you can work with is in itself an important part of the healing. Trauma from narcissistic abuse or any other kind of damaging toxic relationship is a 'relational' trauma. Meaning the trauma has been about something between you and another person. The kind of betrayal caused from narcissistic abuse can create damaging issues of trust however, through social engagement through either via healthy support systems or a therapeutic relationship are an important part of recovery. The process of a good therapeutic relationship can support this healing.
Complex PTSD is helped through specialist trauma therapy approaches. Specific trauma therapy approaches tend to be 'body-based' or incorporate 'bottom-up' processing so it's important if you are seeking a therapist to try to find somebody who understands healing trauma in this way. This is because analysis, high level thinking, analytical talking therapies many not 'reach' the trauma in order to help process any past traumatic experiences. In fact, some therapy approaches can even be re-traumatising.
Some recommended specific Trauma Therapy approaches include:
EMDR - eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing can help to process traumatic memories.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy
Comprehensive Resource Model
*Yoga & Meditation practises can also be a support to help manage symptoms of trauma and PTSD
Finding the right kind of help makes a huge difference to getting past the 'stuckness' following an abusive relationship and can be a key support in feeling better and moving on.
It is absolutely possible to heal from the trauma of narcissistic abuse, to feel better, to move on and get to a place where you can bring an end to unhealthy relationship patterns, rebuild trust and enjoy healthier, more fulfilling and loving relationships. The journey to this healing is a worthwhile one - one you deserve - and sometimes it's an absolutely necessary one.
For more information and a practical self-help guide to recovery from Narcissistic Abuse check out Dr. Sarah Davies book - Never Again - moving on from narcissistic abuse and other toxic relationships - available as paperback and to download.
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