Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (c-PTSD) is a mental disorder found in both children and adults who have experienced repeated abusive events or other trauma.
Not every person who has had an abusive relationship or experienced repeated trauma will develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder but many do.
Every case of c-PTSD, is different.
The symptoms of c-PTSD may include a combination of excessive feelings of guilt, emotional dysregulation, anxiety, dissociation, and interpersonal difficulties. Physiological symptoms, such as risk-taking behaviors (gambling, drug use, etc.), self-isolation, and suicidal ideation are also common.
Because physical abuse, neglect, and other physically traumatic experiences, often have tangible evidence that something painful occurred, the disastrous effects of emotional abuse can go unnoticed, or be invalidated and minimized. For decades, a trauma response to psychological and emotional abuse was seen as a character flaw—that those who weren’t able to “get over” what happened were treated as though they were weak or unmotivated to heal—that they needed to try harder.
The reality is that not only does emotional abuse have a long-lasting impact, it often comes along with other forms of abuse such as physical, financial, sexual, and spiritual.
Emotional abuse, by itself, is more than capable of causing c-PTSD.
The following are some steps you can take on your road to recovery. Healing after emotional abuse is a process, but it is possible.
1. Be Honest with Yourself About the Abuse
The first step to healing from emotional abuse and c-PTSD is being honest with yourself about the abuse you experienced. Healing starts once denial, minimization, or justification for how you were mistreated ends.
Even if the abuser had trauma in their past, it does not excuse their abusive behavior and you did not deserve it. Denial regarding the seriousness of your abuser’s behavior, or denial that you were the victim of abuse, can lead to making excuses for the abusive person, blaming yourself, or feeling guilty.
2. Establish a Support Network
Establishing a support network can be vital to healing. Research has shown that the number one factor in recovering from abuse is a support system. Unfortunately, victims of emotional abuse tend to have weak support systems. This might be due to the abusive person pressuring them to cut off contact from their family and friends; or the former target may struggle with anxiety, depression, feelings of shame or guilt, and/or c-PTSD, causing them to want to isolate from others.
If you are struggling to get the support you need from family and friends, support groups are worth considering. We offer two free online support groups: one is on Facebook and one is on our website. The benefit of a support group is that hearing the experiences of others can be both validating and clarifying. Additionally, you can get the emotional benefit of helping others by sharing your experience.
3. Work on Re-establishing Your Sense of Self and Self-Esteem
Emotional abuse can do a number on your sense of self as well as your self-esteem. Abusers are experts at corroding a victim’s identity and self-esteem through emotional and verbal attacks, as well as lying, manipulating, and gaslighting.
Gaslighting, and the brain’s reaction to gaslighting, can shake a person’s trust in themselves, leading them to question their logic and intuition. They may even start questioning if they are actually the abusive one, or that they somehow deserved to be mistreated.
As part of the process of healing from emotional abuse and c-PTSD, it’s vital to get in touch with yourself again. What this means is to re-establishing a connection with your wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings — and to sifting out the ones that come from others (especially the person who was abusive). Once you are able to identify how you feel, and the difference between what makes you uncomfortable and comfortable, what nourishes or drains you, then, and only then, will you begin to reclaim your sense of self and power in your life. Doing so will help to keep you safe, as when you experience something that doesn’t work for you, you are no longer looking to others for agreement. You’ll be able to check-in with yourself for both validation and how to proceed.
4. Get Distance from the Abusive Person
It is profoundly difficult to heal from abuse if you are still in an abusive relationship. With that said, leaving an abusive situation can be overwhelming and potentially dangerous. Developing a safety plan and having access to a support system can help.
If leaving isn’t an option, or if you aren’t ready to leave, it can help to get distance from the abuse by getting as much space from the abuser as possible so you can have, at least, some peace in your life. This might involve something as brief as excusing yourself to the bathroom. This way you can shut the door, wash your hands and your face, and breathe.
If you are holding onto hope that they can change, now is a good time to get clear on what kind of changes you need to see, in what time frame you need to see these changes, and how you will measure the results. However, please know that abusive behavior tends to get worse with time, not better.
If you do leave your abuser, it may become difficult to stay away. As time passes, you may find yourself missing the good times or wondering if the bad times were really that bad, or if things between the two of you could be different in the future. Because of this, while it is still fresh in your mind, I encourage you to create a “for when I miss him (or her)” letter. If nostalgia surfaces and you find yourself tempted to contact them, reading this letter can help remind you of why this relationship was toxic.
5. Seek Professional Care
Seeking professional help is a great form of self-care. In fact, it may be the best option, especially if you are struggling. When seeking professional care, look for someone whose approach is trauma-informed. Therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can be tremendously helpful and provide results in a few visits.
5. Engage in Self-Care
An important part of recovery is self-care. Self-care includes being intentional with what you are feeding your brain, how you are talking to yourself, and how you are valuing your time, energy, and emotions. Some ways to get started with self-care are to develop a mantra to keep you empowered, or to listen to some relaxation videos with affirmations for people with c-PTSD specifically. If you are struggling with overwhelm or anxiety, getting your thoughts down on paper by journaling, or drawing, can help.
Just as important as things specifically targeting c-PTSD are things that you simply enjoy. You don’t need to wait until you are completely healed, or are in a great mood, to treat yourself or have fun. Cooking your favorite meal, watching a TV series that puts you in a good mood or is comforting, or making a trip to your favorite spot can all do wonders for your emotional health.
You matter. Your emotional, mental, and physical health matters.