How Traumas Create Negative Patterns in Relationships
By Melanie Greenberg Ph.D. 8/13/19
Traumas are extreme life events that threaten your physical or psychological survival. A percentage of people who experience traumas have clinically diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more have trauma-related symptoms like physiological reactivity to triggers, panic attacks, chronic anxiety, feelings of anger or numbness, or a loss of trust.
In addition to traumas like rape, childhood abuse, or military combat, a pileup of negative life events, unresolved chronic stress (e.g., prolonged unemployment), past abusive relationships, or growing up in a dysfunctional family can also lead to trauma-like reactions and susceptibility to emotional triggering and reactivity.
Trauma professionals often refer to these types of events as “little t” traumas to differentiate them from the “big T” of life-threatening events. But either can impact your relationships in negative ways if you don’t deal with them through therapy or self-help.
Following are four ways traumas can negatively affect romantic relationships:
1. Getting triggered into traumatized states
Our brain wiring is such that if you have unprocessed trauma or PTSD symptoms, or experience chronic, ongoing stressful situations, you are likely to get triggered into states of “fight, flight, or freeze” when you encounter situations that remind you of the original trauma or ongoing stressor or situations which your brain deems important for physical/emotional survival.
Because our ancestors were tribal and depended on the tribe for protection, food, and shelter, we are wired to react to perceived abandonment or rejection in relationships as if they were threats to our physical survival. If you also have past traumas or currently experience situations that are actual threats to survival (e.g., debt, unemployment, serious illness), you may become even more likely to react to relationship conflict or rejection with the brain’s primitive survival mechanisms.
A part of the brain called the amygdala is wired to take over and generate fighting, fleeing, or freezing responses when your brain labels a relationship conflict as an emergency. This can lead you to say things you don’t mean, scream, or lose control, or feel overwhelmed and shut down. All of these responses can cause a partner to feel attacked, rejected, or abandoned, which triggers their emergency response network, and so the cycle continues.
2. Fighting, fleeing, or freezing
Unprocessed traumas or ongoing serious chronic stressors can cause the primitive brain networks involved in survival and threat response to hijack your brain into a “fight, flight, or freeze” state.
If one of these responses helped you survive childhood trauma (e.g., fleeing from a borderline parent or fighting a drunk, angry parent so they wouldn’t harm a younger sibling), your brain will give that type of response priority and automatically generate fighting, fleeing, or freezing when the amygdala signals a relationship emergency.
Read the full article HERE on psychologytoday.com