Say the words “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” and what immediately comes to mind? Soldiers returning from war? Survivors of domestic or sexual abuse? How about crime victims or even those who have emerged from horrific car or plane accidents?
While these are all true, would it surprise you to know that those who have had to, or are still weathering extended periods of acrimony, verbal and mental abuse, or the emotional assault of child custody battles associated with divorce also may be suffering from a form of PTSD? Although technically, PTSD is often linked with one major event, complicated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder arises when a person suffers continual and multiple assaults to their senses.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, Washington, DC) – or commonly referred to by legal and medical professionals simply as the DSM5 – PTSD occurs when a person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following are present: The person experienced, or witnessed indirectly, an event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or threat to one’s physical integrity; and, the resulting symptoms include re-experiencing the event (flashbacks), numbing (a detachment of your feelings), hyper-vigilance (irritability, startle easily, and you need to know and control everything going on around you), and avoidance (generally of people, places or things that remind you of your estranged spouse).
In children, this may be expressed instead by disorganized or agitated behavior (acting out, disobedience). Yes, children exposed to extended marital strife can also experience PTSD, resulting in a decline in school performance, personal relationships, and a regression to earlier behaviors (such as bed-wetting, thumb sucking, and selective mutism).
Where these symptoms are the result of a series of events – such as repeated violations, ie verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, physical or psychological bullying, harassment and stalking – the term Complex PTSD is more appropriate. (See National Center for PTSD).
While, to some, this may sound like psychological jargon, consider the amount of fear involved in a high percentage of divorces: fear of losing the children (or their affection), fear of financial strife, fear of losing one’s identity/standing in current social circles, and even – in some cases – fear for one’s own sanity or life as combative divorce procedures stretch out interminably. Like soldiers fresh from Iraq or Afghanistan, many going through divorce emerge with feelings of hopelessness, shame, guilt, and anger. They may cope with these feelings by isolating themselves from friends and relatives, engage in reckless behavior, or self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
All classic symptoms and negative coping skills for those suffering from PTSD! Does any of this resonate with you? If it does, you are definitely not alone, but you can take measures to life yourself – and your children – out of this downward slide. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are key features of depression which can lead to a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, substance abuse and suicide.
You can recover – and even thrive and fulfill yourself more completely – after divorce, but it helps to seek short term counseling. There you can learn to mourn your loss constructively, edit the negative people out of your life, identify your strengths, embrace a redesigned path, and make the time to nurture and accept who you have become.
Remember, your mind, body and spirit are all connected. You can recover from Complex PTSD and become a more authentic you!
Denise Lang-Grant is a licensed therapist specializing in trauma, and author of ten non-fiction books on family relationships, health, and true crime. An adjunct instructor for Seton Hall University’s Master’s in Counseling program, Denise maintains a private practice with offices in Morris and Somerset counties and is the state facilitator for strengthening community response to military survivors of sexual violence. She is a member of the American Counseling Association and the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. You can reach Denise through her email, firstname.lastname@example.org or website at www.DLGCounselingAssociates.com.