Relationship PTSD Is Real—Here's How Experts Explain It
It's part of the fallout from having an abusive partner.
In December 2020, musician FKA twigs (real name Tahliah Debrett Barnett) filed a lawsuit against her ex-partner, actor Shia LaBeouf, citing many instances of physical, emotional, and mental abuse. She alleges that LaBeouf choked her and knowingly gave her a sexually transmitted infection, which is a misdemeanor crime under the California Health and Safety Code.
Her experiences with LaBeouf resulted in "relationship PTSD" (post-traumatic stress disorder), Twigs revealed on Louis Theroux's BBC Radio 4 Grounded podcast on January 25. She felt "scared and intimidated and controlled" by LaBeouf, she told Theroux, and she "wasn't allowed to look men in the eye." She said she gradually became aware of him becoming more "jealous and controlling," and noticed the "little things you could do wrong that could take away from the happiness."
This resulted in "really intense" panic attacks that could be triggered by anything that woke her in the night, "even if it was just my dog, or a noise outside, or just needing to go to the bathroom. I was left with PTSD from that, which again is just something that I don't think we really talk about as a society just in terms of the healing when leaving, and how much work that has to be done to recover, to get back to the person that you were before."
LaBeouf previously told The New York Times that many of Twig's allegations are not true but said he owed her and Karolyn Pho, another woman whose claims feature in the lawsuit, "the opportunity to air their statements publicly and [for me to] accept accountability for those things I have done."
Relationship PTSD: what causes it?
PTSD is an extreme anxiety disorder caused by experiencing a life-threatening event or situation. It's characterized by intrusive memories, an avoidance of things that could remind a person of the trauma, moodiness, and hyperarousal, Aaron Tendler, MD, chief medical officer of Brainsway, a mental health tech company, tells Health. "These four clusters of symptoms persist over at least one month and impair patients' ability to function normally in daily life," he says.
An abusive relationship can lead to PTSD, Dr. Tendler says, because the traumatic events that took place during the relationship can cause the symptoms to stay present during the relationship, as well as long after the relationship has ended. "When these symptoms are present for a period of time, it can be diagnosed as PTSD," Dr. Tendler explains.
What are the signs of PTSD?
People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. "They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people," Dr. Tendler says. Those with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.
Depression is a common co-occurring diagnosis in people with PTSD. In fact, researchers have found that people who have or have had a PTSD diagnosis are three to five times more likely to have a depressive disorder.
Are some people more susceptible to PTSD?
The chances of developing PTSD depend on many factors, including individual resilience traits, prior trauma, prior mood and anxiety disorders, coping methods, substance use, and support systems.
"It can happen to anyone," Dr. Tendler says. "A number of factors can increase the chances that someone will develop PTSD, many of which are not under that person's control. You can develop PTSD when you go through, see, or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation."
Healing after an abusive relationship
Recovery from trauma is different for everybody, but a psychiatrist or therapist can help find the right path.
"I remind trauma survivors that they are not alone and that feelings of shame and guilt after enduring trauma are normal," Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director for California-based Community Psychiatry, tells Health. She also explains to them why this occurs by discussing changes in the brain, and how children and adults tend to blame themselves when a loved and trusted individual perceives them as subservient and routinely gaslights and dejects them.
"I help them recognize their strengths and aspirations and find their voice again by providing them with therapy and initiating medications to target their depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic symptoms when warranted," Dr. Magavi says. The therapy can take many forms, including mindfulness activities, yoga, dance, art, and exercise. "Catharsis of any form allows trauma survivors to practice self-compassion," she explains. Dr. Magavi may also ask her patients to create lists of reasons why they are not to blame, read these out loud, and process associated emotions with her. "When they are ready, I encourage them to speak to me as if I am the individual who hurt them; I encourage them to release all their emotions freely," she adds.
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