I never considered my toxic relationship to be like a battlefield during wartime. However, after I left the narcissist, my therapist told me I was suffering from PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, much like soldiers do after returning home from the frontlines.
I was shocked, but it certainly made sense. I had spent years living in a stressful and unpredictable environment, with lies and betrayal at every turn. My symptoms included flashbacks, insomnia, depression, despondency and panic attacks, to name a few. Some psychologists have coined the phrase “post narcissist stress disorder” to describe the scars and allude to the recovery needed after being in a relationship with a narcissist.
The American Psychiatric Associated says post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault. The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions. This is very similar to what victims of narcissistic abuse go through, we call it Post Narcissist Stress Disorder.
Emotional reactions can be:
- Feeling intense amounts of pain – You may recall a violent outburst from the narcissist and feel like you are being yelled at all over again.
- Remembering and reliving traumatizing events – Narcissists are skilled at doling out punishment. When survivors remember that castigation repeatedly, it can make you feel like you have traveled back in time.
- Feeling confused – Narcissists often alter the survivor’s sense of reality, so finally living in your reality can be confusing. It takes time to learn to define our own truth.
- Losing rational thinking – This loss of understanding the world around us comes into play while in the relationship. We become so broken down and distraught that we think we can’t survive without the narcissist or that there is no way out of the relationship.
- Feeling stress, agitation – Survivors learn to adapt to a higher stress level, day after day. The phrase “walking on eggshells” applies, because there is no predictability to the relationship. There is no safe place.
The physical manifestation of PTSD can be:
- Panic attacks – A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. Symptoms usually include at least four of the following: palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate. There can also be sweating, trembling or shaking. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering also can occur.
- Insomnia – Insomnia makes it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. This can make it difficult to tend to daily tasks the next day.
- Excessive fatigue – Sometimes, fatigue goes hand in hand with insomnia. Survivors report staying up all night and sleeping all day. This extreme fatigue can also be due to the extraordinary amount of stress on the body that the body just needs to shut down to get away.
- Thyroid or adrenal problems – These glands excrete hormones needed for metabolism. Too much or not enough of these hormones can lead to lethargy or too much energy.
- Agitation – Survivors are typically in a constant state of being angry or on high alert due to the unpredictable, stressful environment of being around the narcissist.
- Feeling numb – Some survivors turn off emotions in order to avoid feeling any more pain.
- Abnormally high heart rate (tachycardia) – Stress can lead to a heart rate that is too fast.
- High cholesterol (we don’t eat healthily or smoke more) – It is easy to let go of healthy habits when faced with life-changes and stress.
- Suicidal thoughts – Some survivors have felt like death would be better than mentally reliving a relationship nightmare. If you have had any suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Obsessive thinking – This is the inability to move on from dissecting an event or the relationship.
As someone who has experienced PTSD from a narcissistic relationship, I can tell you that healing is possible.
First, if you want to heal and be free, you need to be physically free of the narcissist. Go no contact or limited contact (if you have children with the narcissist). At this point in my recovery, even the narcissist’s handwriting would trigger bad memories for me. Cutting all ties will help you heal more quickly.
Secondly, find a therapist who understands narcissism and the trauma associated with toxic people. A skilled and trained counselor can help you develop the best recovery plan for you. Some therapists believe in using different healing modalities, such as EMDR, which is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EFT, which is an emotional freedom technique. EFT is the tapping exercise that has helped some survivors, including myself.
It will also help to find a support group, a friend or a family member who understands. Sometimes we need someone to go with us to therapy and hold our hand in the car. Other times we need the person we can call in the middle of the night to dissect a painful memory.
Finally, give yourself grace. You’ve been through a lot. You can overcome this. Two steps forward and one step back is still forward movement.
We understand how difficult it is to deal with the aftermath of what the narcissist left. If you are interested in online counseling, Dr. Carter has a sponsor who can assist. As the need is there, please seek the help you deserve:
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