C-PTSD and Trauma Bonds

One of the symptoms of PTSD (but especially Complex PTSD, most often caused by an individual or a group of individuals) which I feel needs to be talked about more often is the idea of trauma bonds.

Specifically, I feel it’s imperative to talk about trauma bonds far more prominently in PTSD and C-PTSD discussions because of the potential for trauma bonds to inhibit healing and/or increase instances of regression in those with PTSD.

The idea of a trauma bond is relatively similar to that of Stockholm syndrome. For those unfamiliar with either of these terms/concepts: Stockholm syndrome is a condition in which a person in an intensively abusive situation (often a situation of kidnapping or a hostage situation) becomes emotionally dependent on their abuser, and will often assume their beliefs and perspectives and ally themselves with the abuser.

The reason for this phenomenon is survival. The victim undergoes such severe trauma at the hands of the abuser that any action on the part of the abuser that is not traumatic or harmful is seen as a blessing. A random kind word amidst a barrage of threatening shouts, an extra bit of food in a hostage situation, an extra bit of time outside solitary confinement  – the victim comes to see these as good treatment from the abuser. And, for their own survival, the victim analyzes the abuser’s every mood, action, and word – to the extent that they start identifying with the abuser’s moods and beliefs.

Stockholm syndrome itself is often associated with captor and hostage situations. Now just replace “captor” with one person in your life who you believe did you the most harm during a long period in which you were vulnerable and dependent on them. Doubtless the first person who comes to mind for a lot of people would be an abusive romantic partner or spouse. For others, it would be an abusive friend or roommate. For others, it would be a parent (or both parents). For older parents, it might even be a grown child.

For me, it’s my dad.

The fact that I’m talking about trauma bonds, Stockholm syndrome and irrational emotional ties to an abuser might seem odd in light of the fact that my last article was about me cutting ties with my dad. But the more I’ve been thinking about my decision and processing my resulting emotions, the more I’ve realized I need to confront this particular symptom of my C-PTSD and call it exactly what it is.

In the week since I decided to cut ties with my dad, I’ve felt peace. Alongside that peace, I’ve also felt immense guilt. Despite all the objective, logical reasons why I decided to put space between us and put our relationship on hold, I’ve had unbidden thoughts about how much my decision might hurt him, how much it might hinder his own growth, whether my mom would approach me afterward declaring that I’d “broken his heart.”

I’ve had unwanted images in my head of his “sad face,” and the rare moments in my life when he seemed to be genuinely experiencing sadness, hurt or loss without processing those emotions in an unhealthy way; just simply feeling and expressing them. And I’ve also been seriously wondering why I’ve been having these thoughts.

At first I attributed it to empathy. But the more I started to think about it, the more I started to wonder just why I would be having such an empathetic response to my abuser, especially in light of the fact that I’ve been able to more and more concretely identify the ways in which his abuse has (perhaps permanently) harmed me.

One idea I had was the fact that despite everything, he’s still my dad and on some level I still love him because he’s my dad. But even that explanation seemed too much like a cop-out. I started going over basic symptoms of C-PTSD again, and I was reminded of trauma bonds.

The same essential characteristics of Stockholm syndrome are present in C-PTSD trauma bonds. With intermittent good and bad treatment, the victim is led to believe that the abuser is not an entirely bad person. Eventually dependent on the abuser and isolated by them, the victim comes to believe that the abuser is their only source of love, affection and/or sustenance. The abuser, increasing the isolation factor, will try to convince the victim that they can’t trust anyone outside the situation (therapists, social workers, police, etc.).

Lindsay Dodgson from Business Insider asserts that trauma bonding is “a bit like becoming addicted to a drug [because an] abusive relationship is a rollercoaster… [there’s] punishment and then intermittent reinforcement of kindness when you “behave.” This means the body is going through its own turmoil, with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, paired with dopamine when given affection as a reward.”

The implications of this idea, to me, are frightening. It means that in an ongoing abusive situation, our brains are literally rewired so that we become exclusively trusting and emotionally bonded with our abusers. It means that, as a survival instinct, we learn to feel their emotions as our own so that we can mitigate them to prevent harm coming to ourselves.

I thought that had stopped over time in myself, after I had moved out from my parents’ place and lived separate from them for years.

Apparently, old brain re-wirings die hard.

…and that’s ok.

I’ve mentioned in other articles that healing isn’t necessarily linear, that it’s unique to every individual and that it has to take its own time. I’ve also mentioned that one of the first steps to true healing is acknowledging one’s symptoms in the first place so that they can be managed, worked on, and eventually decreased.

The fact that I caught this lingering remnant of my trauma bonding with my dad means I can focus on it. It doesn’t mean that I’m killing the empathetic part of myself. It means that, with time, therapy, and talks with other people, I can learn how to manage the emotions caused by this symptom, figure out other areas of my life affected by it, and continue taking the steps to separate my own behavior from my trauma.

Thanks for reading. Please comment if this helped.More PTSD Testimonials Here.

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