Can You Get PTSD from Divorce?
- What is PTSD?
- Can divorce be a traumatic event?
- What kind of trauma can divorce cause?
- How to treat divorce trauma
There’s no doubt that going through a divorce can be challenging at best and devastating at worst. In fact, divorce is often likened to going through the death of a loved one. Except this loved one is still very much alive and still able to trigger more grief and trauma in your life.
Your divorce is not just the end of a relationship; it’s also the loss of life as you knew it. It’s the loss of your identity as a spouse. It may be the loss of your home and seeing your children each day, too. Your divorce may have left you with significant financial losses. There is little that can impact your life and mental health the way divorce does.
While divorce doesn’t often prompt a diagnosis of PTSD, going through a drawn-out and bitter divorce can cause trauma, grief, and physical symptoms similar to PTSD. Add to that domestic violence or abandonment, and you have many of the same makings of a trauma-triggering situation.
What is PTSD?
The American Psychiatric Association’s definition of posttraumatic stress disorder is “a response caused by exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” In order to be formally diagnosed with PTSD, someone must have begun to act in a different way after the trauma of a life-threatening event or something highly similar.
The following symptoms of PTSD may develop:
- A heightened startle response
- Risky, destructive, or hypervigilant behaviors
- The re-experiencing or reliving of trauma through memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
- Avoidance behaviors; shying away from anything that might cause reminders of the trauma
- Negative thoughts and moods, feelings of isolation, and disinterest in activities
PTSD is commonly treated using different types of therapies and medications. The goal of treatment is to help people who experience PTSD address their symptoms and cope with them when they arise, think better of themselves and others, and treat other co-existing issues such as depression, anxiety, or addictions.
Can divorce be a traumatic event?
Divorce is inherently a traumatic experience, even if you're the one who initiated it. Similarly, the trauma caused by divorce often results in many of the same symptoms as PTSD, including negative self-regard or blame, isolation, aggression, paranoia, risky behavior, decreased interest in activities, and trouble sleeping and concentrating.
While divorce doesn’t usually result in a formal PTSD diagnosis unless there has been abuse, that’s not to say that the trauma of divorce isn’t real and doesn’t result in many of the same symptoms as PTSD. There’s some debate over whether the definition of PTSD sufficiently addresses trauma that isn’t life-threatening like the trauma of divorce. This is why some professionals have started referring to divorce-related trauma symptoms as post-dissolution PTSS (post-traumatic stress symptoms).
What kind of trauma can a divorce cause?
All trauma symptoms are actually caused by a physical response. Your body becomes flooded with stress hormones. Your brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode, and your emotions take over your ability to think clearly. Despite your body’s readiness and hypervigilance, you simultaneously feel helpless and exhausted. Feelings of grief, anger, guilt, and anxiety overcome you. You can’t sleep, eat, or focus on anything other than your situation. Your ability to cope with life is gone.
Many things can cause trauma. In a divorce, trauma is more likely when:
- It is unexpected
- The affected spouse feels powerless to prevent it
- The spouse asking for the divorce becomes angry, cruel, or abusive
In most cases, a spouse’s trauma is the result of shock and powerlessness. Even when both spouses recognize that the marriage isn’t at its best, one spouse usually holds out hope that something can be done about it. When confronted with the formal end to the marriage, that spouse can feel betrayed, confused, and deeply hurt, i.e., traumatized.
Even more confusing and confounding is the spouse who suddenly leaves without a word, never to return. Spousal abandonment can leave the remaining spouse shocked and lost, not knowing where to go or what to do next.
How can divorce trauma be treated?
In most cases, you will treat your divorce trauma the same way others treat their PTSD symptoms: with consistent therapy, a good dose of patience, and a lot of self-care. You may even benefit from some pharmaceutical intervention to help get you through this difficult time.
Different types of therapies can be useful for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to divorce trauma:
Also known as talk therapy, this is the most well-known of therapies. A mental health professional will guide you using open and honest communication to talk through the problems and the trauma that’s resulted, and they will help you eliminate or manage symptoms so you can heal and move on.
Cognitive behavior therapy
This type of therapy can be used to pinpoint how some of your thought patterns have been incorrect or unhelpful. A CBT therapist will help you reframe your thought patterns more accurately so you can improve how you respond to the issues you’re facing.
As a complement to talk therapy, you may also consider other modalities to help you cope with the pain and ease the sadness of your divorce. Other methods you might consider can include movement or yoga, mindfulness, other types of meditation, deep breathing, music therapy, journaling, or expressive arts therapy. For many individuals, painful emotions can be easier to process and move through the body using these alternative modalities in addition to therapy.
Support groups can be essential in those times when you just need a shoulder and an ear.
At Hello Divorce, we know that divorce is far more than a legal transaction. It can affect every aspect of your life. We focus on helping people move through divorce and beyond so they can heal and move on with a big, beautiful, brilliant life. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, or schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to learn more about how we can help.
Suggested: How to Get Through a High-Conflict Divorce