On a typically calm afternoon, you step out from your car parked downtown into a flow of movement on a crowded sidewalk. As you walk through the crowd, somewhere in the background a car backfires. In an instant everything changes. Your eyes narrow, your heart rate soars, and you freeze. Naturally, your eyes scan the crowd searching in vain for the source of the threat, the cause of your discomfort.
Innocent chatter transforms into a thundering noise of confusion. You can’t move, and despite all your knowledge that you are in fact stateside and safe (and not back in that god-forsaken hell of a desert, combat town where threats lay in hiding everywhere), you have no control over your body and are being consumed by fear.
Rewind the moment. Step out of the same car on that same afternoon. Out of habit, your hand reaches for the cell phone to check the source of that familiar (albeit annoying) beckoning ding. In an instant, everything changes. Glaring back at you on that shiny, glass screen reads your ex’s name. Your skin flushes. Your breathing pauses then becomes shallow, and you feel your heart pound in your chest.
Mind racing with a random, rapid firing of questions, you wonder what she wants. Why now? Should I answer it or not? The phone is still there, her name still brightly lit. It’s now a blinding light. You want to shield yourself but are frozen, staring back at the instrument of torture until it gives up. The screen goes dark liberating you from near panic.
The scenarios above couldn’t be more different from one another. But the strong reaction that occurred within the body was the same.
In the combat flashback, the story has become all-too-familiar to Americans today as so many of our combat veterans return from the War on Terror overseas. These symptoms clearly fall into the category of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
In the second scenario, the symptoms are the same. But instead of their relation to combat, they are tied to a divorce and a bad relationship.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The National Institute of Mental Health offers a great explanation of PTSD:
“When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.”
As the definition continues, it is pretty clear that there is a link between the disorder and a traumatic event that either happened to the person, their loved one, or an event they witnessed.
Public attention to this disorder is highlighted as it relates to war veterans. That reaction to combat has been around throughout war, known by many names like war nerves or shell shock. It’s often referred to as a weakness and even ignored. Only recently was it recognized as a treatable neurological disorder.
PTSD is not just a combat issue. It can just as easily occur as a result of muggings, carjacking, rape, torture, and abuse.
A spouse who survives a physically abusive relationship can develop PTSD as a result of fear and traumatic events from their relationship. But as we all know, abuse doesn’t have to be physical. Those who survive an emotionally abusive relationship may feel similar symptoms. Maybe the harm, danger, or actual trauma wasn’t there, but the fear existed.
Where a state of fear exists so does the potential to develop PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD After Divorce
Most of the academic information out there is pretty explicit in the linkage of PTSD to an unusually traumatic event, not a long-term situation like an emotionally abusive relationship.
While the textbooks may agree, one cannot overlook the glaring similarity in symptoms. You know it when you see it.
Symptoms are classified into three broad categories. As you look at these, think about how they may relate to the trauma of a long-term, emotionally abusive relationship or terrible, lengthy divorce:
- Re-experiencing symptoms
- Avoidance symptoms
- Hyperarousal symptoms
Within these categories are:
- Feelings of guilt
- Emotional numbness
- Sleep difficulties
- Sudden, emotional outbursts of crying or rage
In a true, textbook diagnosis of PTSD, these symptoms must last longer than one month, during which time you must have at least:
- One re-experiencing symptom
- three avoidance symptoms
- two hyperarousal symptoms
Treatments for PTSD include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
Scientific Research and PTSD
There is an extremely impressive amount of research pouring into PTSD today, primarily due to a lot of war veterans returning with PTSD. The numbers are staggering. There are approximately 2.7 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the United States today (compared to 2.6 million from Vietnam), and that number is still climbing. According to the RAND Corporation, approximately 20% of these veterans are suffering from some form of PTSD today.
It’s the areas of the brain tasked with shedding fear reactions post facto which appear to malfunction in cases of PTSD.
Finding the answer and treating these problems is of vital importance now and for the future. Our Vietnam era veterans are reporting statistics of around 4 out of 5 experiencing PTSD symptoms 20-25 years AFTER the war! Soldiers returning from recent wars will need treatment for decades to come. They cannot be left to struggle in the same way that Vietnam-era soldiers have.
Risk Factors for Developing PTSD
A lack of social support stands out as a chief factor in developing PTSD. As men, we naturally do not seek out our support network for to help us along. We “cowboy up” and do what society has ingrained in us which is to take it like a man.
No matter PTSD, depression, or significant grief from the loss of your relationship and recovery from the horrible emotional abuse you suffered, all roads lead to social support. Support not only comes from your family and friends but also (most importantly) from the professionals out there to help you talk through your problems and deal with the normal emotions and trauma you are experiencing.
There is also the potential for genetics to be a significant factor since, in many situations, symptoms are evident in several generations.
My Findings: Can a Horrible Relationship and/or Divorce Lead to PTSD?
To the original question: Can emotionally damaging relationships or horrible divorces cause PTSD? Or are these symptoms just stress or depression? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. PTSD is a label, so there’s no reason to worry about whether or not it is PTSD.
Yes, a physically abusive relationship, where someone’s life was potentially in danger as a result of abuse, can cause someone to develop PTSD. As for a painful divorce, the academics vote this as unlikely.
No matter the label, the treatment for the symptoms is the same.
PTSD is a serious problem. We should all be grateful it’s getting significant attention. Benefits from PTSD research are spilling over into the support structure available for all forms of mental therapy and counseling.
Just because the academics don’t classify the intense damage caused by long-term emotional abuse or traumatic divorce circumstances as PTSD, doesn’t negate the fact that the symptoms are remarkably similar. If the symptoms can be treated through discoveries made from progressing research for PTSD, those who are troubled by abusive relationships and divorce will certainly benefit.
Recovery starts with seeking help. Recognizing that the symptoms are not normal (or a normal part of grief) – and not ok – is the first step, guys! After that, seek professional help. Your family deserves the real you, the best possible you. Don’t have slug it out alone. It’s neither manly nor acceptable to struggle for the rest of your life.
Divorce does end and life does go on. Give yourself the best future by speeding your way out of the dark times with the aid of professional help.
Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, contact the National Center for PTSD or call 911 in the case of an emergent situation.