Trauma, PTSD, and Codependency: How Life Experiences Affect Our Relationships
By Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT is a therapist specializing in codependency. The following piece explores trauma’s influence on codependency, and details about the forms it can take.
You can make significant strides in overcoming codependency by developing new attitudes, skills, and behavior. But deeper recovery may involve healing trauma, usually that began in childhood. Trauma can be emotional, physical, or environmental, and can range from experiencing a fire to emotional neglect. Childhood events had a greater impact on you then than they would today, because you didn’t have coping skills that an adult would have. As a consequence of growing up in a dysfunctional family environment, codependents often suffer further trauma due to relationships with other people who may be abandoning, abusive, addicted or have mental illness.
Childhood itself may be traumatic when it’s not safe to be spontaneous, vulnerable, and authentic. It’s emotionally damaging if you were ignored, shamed, or punished for expressing your thoughts or feelings or for being immature, imperfect, or having needs and wants. Some people are neglected or emotionally or physically abandoned and conclude they can’t trust or rely on anyone. They hide their real, child self, and play an adult role before they’re ready. Divorce, illness, or loss of a parent or sibling can also be traumatic, depending upon the way in which it was handled by parents. Occurrences become harmful when they’re either chronic or severe to the extent that they overwhelm a child’s limited ability to cope with what was happening. For more on shame and dysfunctional parenting, see Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
How you’ve encountered these experiences are your wounds. Most everyone manages to grow up, but the scars remain and account for problems in relationships and coping with reality. Deeper healing requires reopening those wounds, cleaning them, and applying the medicine of compassion.
Symptoms of Trauma*
Trauma is a subjective experience and differs from person to person. Each child in a family will react differently to the same experience and to trauma. Symptoms may come and go, and may not show up until years after the event. You needn’t have all of the following symptoms to have experienced trauma:
- Over-reacting to triggers that are reminders of the trauma
- Avoiding thinking, experiencing, or talking about triggers for the trauma
- Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- Experiencing memory lapses or inability to recall parts of trauma
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Feeling irritable or angry
- Feeling overwhelming guilt or shame
- Behaving in a self-destructive manner
- Being easily frightened and startled
- Being hypervigilant — excessively fearful
- Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there
- Having restricted feelings — sometimes numb or emotionally flat, or detached from emotions, other people, or events
- Feeling depersonalized; a loss of Self or cut off from your body and environment – like you’re going through the motions
- Having flashbacks of scenes or reliving the past event
- Having dreams or nightmares about the past
- Experiencing insomnia
- Experiencing panic attacks
Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is not uncommon among codependents who experienced trauma either as a child or adult. Diagnosis requires a specific number of symptoms that last for at least 30 days and may start long after the triggering event. Core symptoms include:
- Intrusive thoughts in the form of dreams, waking flashbacks, or recurring negative thoughts
- Avoidance of reminders of the trauma, including forgetting or avoiding sleep and shutting down feelings or numbness
- Hyperarousal putting your nervous system on alert, creating irritability, exhaustion, and difficulty relaxing and sleeping
Trauma is debilitating and robs you of your life. Often a person has experienced several traumas, resulting in more severe symptoms, such as mood swings, depression, high blood pressure, and chronic pain.
The ACE Study of trauma
The ACE (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) study found a direct correlation between adult symptoms of negative health and childhood trauma. ACE incidents that they measured were:
Mother Treated Violently
Household Substance Abuse
Household Substance Abuse
Household Mental Illness
Parental Separation or Divorce
Incarcerated Household Member
Other examples of traumatic occurrences are:
- Addiction or living with an addict (usually includes emotional abuse)
- Death of a loved one or physical or emotional abandonment (can follow divorce)
- Severe or chronic pain or illness
- Poverty (if accompanied by shame, neglect, or emotional abuse)
- Real or threatened loss of anything of value
- Witnessing a trauma to someone else, including survivor guilt
Effects of Childhood Trauma in ACE Study
Almost two-thirds of the participants reported at least one ACE and over 20 percent reported three or more ACEs. (You can take the ACE quiz here.) The higher the ACE score, the higher were the participants’ vulnerability to the following conditions:
- Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Fetal death
- Health-related quality of life
- Illicit drug use
- Ischemic heart disease
- Liver disease
- Poor work performance
- Financial stress
- Risk for intimate partner violence
- Multiple sexual partners
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Suicide attempts
- Unintended pregnancies
- Early initiation of smoking
- Early initiation of sexual activity
- Adolescent pregnancy
- Risk for sexual violence
- Poor academic achievement
Treatment of Trauma
Trauma can be emotional, physical, or environmental, and can range from experiencing a fire to emotional neglect. Healing trauma is like going back in time and feeling what was unexpressed, re-evaluating unhealthy beliefs and decisions, and getting acquainted with missing parts of yourself. Facing what happened is the first step in healing. Many people are in denial of trauma they experienced in childhood, particularly if they grew up in a stable environment. If parents weren’t abusive, but were emotionally unresponsive, you would still experience loneliness, rejection, and shame about yourself and feelings that you may have denied or completely repressed. This is emotional abandonment.
Re-experiencing, feeling, and talking about what happened are significant parts of the healing process. Another step in recovery is grieving what you’ve lost. Stages of grief include anger, depression, bargaining, sometimes guilt, and finally acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you approve of what happened, but you’re more objective about it without resentment or strong emotions. As you release pent-up emotion from your past, you have more energy and motivation to invest in your future.
In this process, it’s essential – and too often omitted – that you discern false beliefs you may have adopted as a result of the trauma and substitute healthier ones. Usually, these are shame-based beliefs stemming from childhood shaming messages and experiences. Recovery also entails identifying and changing how you relate and talk to yourself that leads to undesirable outcomes and behavior and outcomes.
PTSD and trauma do not resolve on their own. It’s important to get treatment as soon as possible. There are several treatment modalities recommended for healing trauma, including CBT, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and Exposure Therapy.
*From Codependency for Dummies, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
©Darlene Lancer 2016
For more on Darlene, visit her site www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.” Follow her on Twitter @darlenelancer and Facebook. You can also listen and watch on Soundcloud, Clyp, and Youtube.
Darlene Lancer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and expert on relationships and codependency. She’s the author Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You and Codependency for Dummies and six ebooks, including: 10 Steps to Self-Esteem, How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits, Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People and Freedom from Guilt and Blame – Finding Self-Forgiveness, also available on Amazon. Ms. Lancer has counseled individuals and couples for 30 years and coaches internationally. She’s a sought after speaker in media and at professional conferences. Her articles appear in professional journals and Internet mental health websites, including on her own, www.whatiscodependency.com, where you can get a free copy of “14 Tips for Letting Go.”