After leaving a narcissist, people often experience PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, much like soldiers do after returning home from the frontline.
It certainly makes sense after spending years living in a stressful and unpredictable environment, with lies and betrayal at every turn.
Symptoms include flashbacks, insomnia, depression, despondency and panic attacks, to name a few. Some psychologists have coined the phrase “post narcissist stress disorder” to describe the scars and allude to the recovery needed after being in a relationship with a narcissist.
The American Psychiatric Association describes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental health disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault. The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions. This is very similar to what victims of narcissistic abuse go through, namely Post Narcissist Stress Disorder (PNSD).
Symptoms of Post Narcissist Stress Disorder
Emotional reactions can be:
- Feeling intense amounts of pain – You may recall a violent outburst from the narcissist and feel like you are being yelled at all over again.
- Remembering and reliving traumatising events – Narcissists are skilled at doling out punishment. When, as a survivor, you remember that criticism or put-downs repeatedly, it can make you feel like you have traveled back in time and are reliving the experience.
- Feeling confused – Narcissists often alter the survivor’s sense of reality, so finally living in your reality can be confusing. It takes time to learn to define your own truth.
- Losing rational thinking – This loss of understanding the world around you comes into play while in the relationship. As a survivor, you become so broken down and distraught that you think you can’t survive without the narcissist or that there is no way out of the relationship.
- Feeling stress, agitation – Survivors learn to adapt to a higher stress level, day after day. The phrase “walking on eggshells” applies, because there is no predictability to the relationship. There is no safe place.
The physical manifestation of PTSD can be:
- Panic attacks – A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. Symptoms usually include at least four of the following: palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling; shaking; sensations of shortness of breath or smothering also can occur.
- Insomnia – Insomnia makes it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. This can make it difficult to tend to daily tasks the next day.
- Excessive fatigue – Often, fatigue goes hand in hand with insomnia. Survivors report staying up all night and sleeping all day. This extreme fatigue can also be due to the extraordinary amount of stress on the body that the body just needs to shut down to get away.
- Thyroid or adrenal problems – These glands excrete hormones needed for metabolism. Too much or not enough of these hormones can lead to lethargy or too much energy.
- Agitation – Survivors are typically in a constant state of being angry or on high alert due to the unpredictable, stressful environment of being around the narcissist.
- Feeling numb – Some survivors turn off emotions in order to avoid feeling any more pain.
- Abnormally high heart rate (tachycardia) – Stress can lead to a heart rate that is too fast.
- High cholesterol (we don’t eat healthily or smoke more) – It is easy to let go of healthy habits when faced with life-changes and stress.
- Suicidal thoughts – Some survivors have felt like death would be better than mentally reliving a relationship nightmare.
- Obsessive thinking – This is the inability to move on from dissecting an event or the relationship; or repeatedly thinking about the experiences.
The good news is that healing from Post Narcissist Stress Disorder is possible.
Healing from PNSD
First, if you want to heal and be free, you need to be physically free of the narcissist. Go no contact or limited contact (if you have children with the narcissist). For some people, even the narcissist’s handwriting can trigger bad memories for them. Cutting all ties will help you heal more quickly.
Secondly, find a therapist who understands narcissism and the trauma associated with toxic people. A skilled and trained counsellor can help you develop the best recovery plan for you. Some therapists believe in using different healing modalities, such as EMDR, which is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing or EFT, which is an emotional freedom technique. EFT is a tapping exercise that may also help some survivors.
It will also help to find a support group, a friend or a family member who understands. Sometimes we need someone to go with us to therapy and hold our hand in the car. Other times we need the person we can call in the middle of the night to dissect a painful memory.
Finally, give yourself grace. You’ve been through a lot. You can overcome this. Two steps forward and one step back is still forward movement.
Author: Merryl Gee, BSocWk, AMHSW, MAASW, MACSW, MANZMHA, MPACFA.
Merryl Gee is a psychotherapist working from a strengths-based, person-centred framework. With over 30 years’ experience, she has a particular interest people who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychotherapist Merryl Gee try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Mt Gravatt on (07) 3088 5422 .