Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is normally associated with one-off events – being the victim of a violent crime, surviving a car crash, or witnessing a battlefield atrocity; a single shocking event leading to a lifetime of suffering and poor mental health.
Another less-commonly spoken of disorder is complex PTSD (c-PTSD), where similar symptoms develop after years of incredibly stressful events. It’s commonly seen in children of abusive parents but can manifest in adults after a prolonged period of homelessness or a toxic relationship.
Recovering from complex PTSD is a lengthy process, one that usually requires a qualified therapist and years of work.
However, the first step towards recovery is recognizing that c-PTSD is real and that the symptoms can be alleviated. Before we dive into that though, let’s look at how c-PTSD develops, particularly in narcissistic relationships.
Can You Get PTSD from a Narcissist?
Being in a toxic relationship with a narcissist enacts an enormous toll on your mental health, causing tremendous anxiety, a loss of trust in those closest to you, and deteriorating self-esteem.
Narcissists see their partners as something to be manipulated for their benefit – extracting narcissistic supply from you, devaluing you to keep you submissive, and discarding you when you no longer serve their purposes.
For many victims of narcissistic abuse, that cycle repeats itself several times before the narcissist discards them for a final time or the victim is able to leave the narcissist.
Leaving a narcissist is no easy task, but recovering from months or years of narcissistic abuse is even harder.
Many abuse victims develop a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Similar to those who’ve lived through war or a natural disaster, these individuals have a compromised sense of safety.
Survivors of narcissistic abuse relive their trauma through flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, making day-to-day living much more challenging.
Some return to their abuser in hopes of getting closure and ceasing their PTSD symptoms. Unfortunately, this almost always restarts the cycle of abuse.
Can You Get PTSD from a Narcissistic Parent?
Partner abuse is the most common type of narcissistic abuse, but it’s not the only form. While partner abuse usually lasts for only a few months or years, narcissistic abuse by parents can go on for decades.
Complex PTSD symptoms from narcissistic abuse are nearly guaranteed in children of narcissistic parents.
This is especially true given the power dynamics between parent and child, with the children being completely reliant on the parent for both material and emotional support.
Narcissistic parents use that dynamic to extract narcissistic supply at will, demanding that their child show love and adoration on demand to receive food and affection.
A child’s relationship with their parents acts as a roadmap for future relationships too, with narcissistic parents inculcating a belief in their children that love is transactional.
These beliefs are incredibly difficult to overcome, with many children of narcissistic parents finding themselves in relationships with narcissistic partners.
Do You Have PNSD? Post-Narcissist Stress Disorder?
If you’ve been the victim of narcissistic abuse, you’re probably wondering if you’ve developed post-narcissistic stress disorder. If you’re asking yourself that question and are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, there’s a strong possibility that you have.
What are the symptoms of PTSD When Healing from Narcissistic Abuse?
Every case of complex PTSD is different, manifesting in different ways based on the type of abuse that was experienced. However, some common symptoms are likely to show up during the healing process.
Avoiding Social Situations
Given that one of the keys to healing from narcissistic abuse is to talk about it with others, it can be confusing when an abuse victim avoids friends and family.
However, repeated abuse leads to complex trauma that is difficult for outsiders to understand.
Abuse victims feel like no one would understand their situation or that they would be looked down on for allowing it to happen.
Being in a relationship with a narcissist puts you into a state of hypervigilance.
You’re constantly trying to please your abuser and protect yourself, which spills over into your sleep time.
That state of hypervigilance persists for years after cutting ties with your narcissistic partner, leading to sleepless nights and waking up in a panic.
Some abuse survivors find relief with medication; others use behavioral techniques like yoga and meditation to quell their anxiety before bed.
Being on Edge
Similar to sleep troubles, survivors are stuck in a state of hypervigilance and feel on edge throughout the day.
This agitation can cause victims of narcissistic abuse to avoid social situations, and those they take part in are often strained.
Talking with close friends and family about your anxiety can help them understand your situation and give you space when needed.
It’s hard to know what exactly will set it off, but those with complex PTSD from narcissistic abuse are especially prone to panic attacks.
Many victims are too ashamed to talk about their panic attacks, thinking the whole thing is “in their head”, but panic attacks are a very physical response from adrenaline coursing your body.
When healing after narcissistic abuse, one of the best things to do during a panic attack is to talk yourself through the symptoms.
Focus on how your physical symptoms are a response to past trauma, and not relevant to your current environment.
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Unsurprisingly, long periods of abuse lead to low self-worth. Narcissists will say or do anything to make you feel like you are less than them.
To heal from your abuse, consider why your abuser said the terrible things that they did.
Was it because of something you did, or because they wanted to control how you felt?
Another way to overcome these negative feelings is to put yourself in a world where other people can notice your talents.
Doing something like joining a volunteer program allows you to make new friends while feeling great about contributing to your community.
How Does PTSD Heal After Narcissistic Abuse?
Narcissistic abuse is not a single event, but a pattern of behavior that can last for months or many years. Healing from that abuse takes time, and everyone goes on a slightly different path to get there.
The most important thing is to remember that things can get better simply.
While the most important step in healing from narcissism and complex PTSD is connecting with a qualified therapist, these strategies could help you on your road to recovery.
Going No Contact
If you’re going to deal with the complex PTSD that comes from narcissistic abuse, the first step is stopping the abusive behaviors.
Many victims try to work it out with their partner, bargaining or making ultimatums, but very few abusers have a change of heart. Instead, they apologize and try to rationalize their abusive behavior, before returning to it days or weeks later.
When you leave your abuser, the best thing for your mental health is to go no contact. It will likely take several weeks of not seeing or hearing from your abuser for the healing to begin.
Recognizing the Abuse
Going no contact is important for separating yourself from your abuser, but it’s just as crucial to recognize which of their past behaviors were abusive.
Some of their more subtle manipulations may have become ingrained in your self-image, such as being unattractive, unworthy of love, or always disappointing people.
Part of the healing process understands how these manipulations benefitted your partner and had little to do with who you are as a person.
A narcissist’s behavior is about them, how they’re feeling, and how they can get what they want from others. You are one of many targets they have used to get the narcissistic supply they desperately need.
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Experiencing the Emotions
Coming to grips with these past abusive behaviors can sometimes be just as traumatic as experiencing them in the first place.
You’re supposed to be able to trust your partner and parents, and that trust was abused for selfish purposes.
This realization can cause you to feel incredibly sad, angry, or mournful for the energy you put into these relationships.
It’s okay to feel all of those things and vital to recovering from narcissistic abuse.
Bottling them up and “acting normal” during the recovery process will only delay the healing of your complex PTSD symptoms.
Regaining Your Individuality
Narcissists want you to believe that you are nothing without them, and accepting that belief gives them power.
After cutting off contact with your abuser, one of the hardest things to do is to understand yourself as an individual rather than as a component of your abuser.
Months later, while making a major life decision, you might start to wonder what your abuser would think about your choices.
That ingrained helplessness is incredibly difficult to break. It can be achieved by surrounding yourself with supportive people who see you as an individual, though, rather than what they can gain from you.
Engaging in Self Care
Nope, this isn’t about having a spa day, though that’s never a terrible idea if you need to relax and disconnect from life’s problems. Instead, this is about active engagement with your healing process.
It’ll look different for everyone, but there be a few commonalities. If you’re struggling with trust issues, it might involve blocking your abuser’s number and setting your phone on “do not disturb” when you’re feeling particularly anxious.
If your abuser taught you to feel guilty when you couldn’t provide them with the supply they needed, revel in the knowledge that you cannot fulfill everyone’s emotional needs.
You are one person, and also your needs must come first sometimes.
So many survivors with C-PTSD from narcissistic abuse are embarrassed by the trauma they’ve endured.
They’re worried that friends and family won’t understand the hold their abuser had on them and why they acted the way they did. This fear of embarrassment creates a culture of silence.
Perhaps the people around you won’t understand if they haven’t gone through it themselves, but talking about the abuse may help you to understand the trauma better.
Supportive friends and family will ask questions without casting judgment, and these questions can help you work through your PTSD symptoms.
What It’s Like to be a Complex Trauma Survivor of Narcissistic Abuse?
The symptoms of complex PTSD aren’t all that different from those that occur with acute forms of PTSD.
Both include feelings of hopelessness, heightened anxiety, distrust in close relationships, and intrusive thoughts about ourselves.
However, acute PTSD can usually be narrowed to a single event or at least of a set of closely associated events.
In this case, one can overcome these associated PTSD symptoms by working through that particular trauma and its impact.
Complex PTSD originates from long periods of trauma, which may be instigated by a single person, but occurred in various ways.
While the origins and effects of acute PTSD are better understood by the general public than there were even a decade ago, the same cannot be said for complex PTSD.
Many people can imagine the trauma that comes from being the victim of a violent crime, they cannot imagine years of subtle manipulation and insults by a parent or romantic partner.
That lack of societal acceptance and understanding makes the healing process more challenging, as does the myriad ways complex PTSD can manifest itself.
Most survivors of narcissistic abuse will need a multipronged approach to healing. A licensed therapist, specifically one experienced with narcissistic abuse and complex PTSD, will be the most important component.
However, taking time to talk about your feelings with trusted friends and family, along with cutting all contact will your abuser will go a long in promoting the healing process.