“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.” Bessel van der Kolk
Let me start by saying that this may be a trigger warning for some, and I apologize to anyone who may find this emotionally disturbing, but I feel this needs to be said, so it can be better understood.
To say…”the past is alive in the form of gnawing inferior discomfort” is an understatement. Yes, it’s alive. It can’t be shut off or escaped. It wakes us up with nightmares. It screws with our appetite and our weight plummets. It causes headaches, nervous conditions, hives, anger, depression, and anxiety. These are on a good day.
On a bad day, many feel hopeless, suicidal.
It has us believing we somehow “deserved” the trauma. It keeps us chained to the narrative taught in childhood that we weren’t good enough. Or, when we got another beating. Or, when our caregiver told us we were never wanted. When we cried ourselves to sleep at night…only to relive another round of it the next day, or the next week.
We learned to hide the bruises by not dressing out for phys-ed. We learned to fake a smile. We learned to always have a book with us, so that we would look “busy” and not be bothered. We began losing ourselves in those books, and they became a much-needed distraction, and our best friend. These familiar cycles become comforting in a twisted way when it’s all you’ve known, and all you’ve been taught to believe you’re worth.
Anyone who has experienced trauma understands this simple equation: past event + trauma = the potential to relive that trauma through other events. When trauma is complex, multiply what is felt by the total number of events, which can exponentially increase the emotional trauma experienced. For many who battle cPTSD, they can wind up living in the past — unable to move past the pain, and struggling to heal from it. They feel trapped. Alone.
And, believe it or not, some with cPTSD actually prefer being alone.
Do we want to self-isolate? To say “fuck no” wouldn’t be fair. Or entirely accurate. Sure, on one hand: FUCK. And, NO. Who would intentionally want to spend their days avoiding the Amazon courier’s knock at the door, or the guy who asked you out at the gym? Yet, these can (and often do) become triggers — reminders that there is a world outside the safety of your home, the comfort of your bed, and the protection of your family. So, you ask for your packages to be left in the backyard to avoid having to answer the door. You give up your gym membership because the guy at the gym reminds you of your ex who traumatized you and replaced you so fast, you learned the hard way how easily some people can discard a human being. You opt for DIY YouTube workout videos. You learn to forward your calls, and you learn the off-hours at the store so you can shop when it’s less “people-y”.
On the other hand, YES. We want to isolate ourselves from the potential of being re-traumatized. So, we build our walls higher, and our armor stronger. We find comfort and peace in nature. Animals. Journaling. We’ve learned to exchange loud and overcrowded places for time alone. We’ve learned the value of quality over quantity. We’ve learned the importance of going within and healing our soul from the damage.
Because anyone who has experienced complicated grief tends to feel mental fog, emotional exhaustion and physical pain, we tire more easily. We can’t juggle as many things at once anymore. We may not have the energy we once used to, and many don’t care to. Taking life slower becomes therapy in-and-of-itself.
When a person has been traumatized and receives a diagnosis of complicated grief, or cPTSD, it’s often after a longstanding history of repeated traumatizations. When trauma is chronic, begins in early childhood or infancy and is repeated, it’s damaging on every level: mental, emotional, physical, and psychological. It damages how we understand ourselves and how we see the world.
Many who have cPTSD struggle in differentiating between what’s safe and secure, versus what’s familiar and comfortable.
When safety and security are shattered in early childhood, a kid grows up learning things backwards; they begin attracting and are attracted to, people and situations that are toxic. Some befriend people who are inauthentic. Or, fall in love with people who are narcissistic. Some trust too easily, or not at all. And, they shy away from people and situations that are safe and healthy. This phenomenon is a result of the damage caused by repeated trauma — it effects thought, cognition, emotion, and a person’s sense of safety. This is what sets a person up for further re-traumatization.
Anyone who has had a rash of narcissistic relationships typically fits this bill.
It’s said that until we authentically learn to love ourselves, our relationships will be a repeat of our earliest traumas in one form or another. Those with cPTSD are at an increased risk of experiencing re-traumatization because of their prior history. Some say it’s like blood in the water to a shark, so maybe that’s one reason they choose to self-isolate, to lower the probability of being seen as prey. Others have a different sense of how they see the world after repeated trauma and abuse, and have chosen to keep their circle extremely small while only letting in family.
Reasons For Self-Isolation
According to Dr. Judith Lewis-Herman, she proposed three stages of healing from complex trauma which include: establishing safety, mourning and grieving, and re-establishing connections. These three stages are non-negotiable for healing. It can take years to move through one stage, especially when establishing a sense of safety for yourself.
Research suggests that those with complicated grief or a diagnosis of cPTSD tend to be more Avoidantly attached, especially when the abuse and trauma began in childhood. For example, a recent study suggests an Avoidant/Dismissive attachment style is significantly correlated with both the core symptoms of PTSD and the Disorders in Self-Organization (DSO) seen in complex PTSD. Other research has suggested that an Avoidant attachment style seen in cPTSD is one of the most important distinguishing differences between BPD and a Disorganized attachment that is common.
There are several reasons why a person with cPTSD will choose to self-isolate. A few of the common ones include:
Cyclic Nature. This identifies the repetition compulsion in which Freud often spoke. With repetition compulsion, when a child is traumatized and it has not been dealt with or healed, the trauma can lay dormant until it is triggered “awake” by another, similar trauma. For example, in simplifying Freud, we may be unconsciously drawn to people as partners who represent our unhealed core wounds, thus re-triggering the core wound, and repeated trauma. This may crop up in dating someone who is scary similar to how your mother behaves, her personality quirks, her own disorders, or her reactivity when triggered. Or, it may show up in dating someone who is like your father who was emotionally cut-off, Avoidant, and abandoned you in childhood.
If these situations have been experienced often enough, a person with complicated grief or cPTSD may decide to throw in the towel and avoid relationships altogether, where isolating themselves is less of a risk to their emotional safety.
It’s “Safe”. The biggest A-ha! is that by staying isolated we feel safe. It’s true. But, it becomes circular — we feel a sense of safety by disconnecting and isolating ourselves, so we continue doing it. In time, we begin upping the ante in how much we avoid. Instead of only going to the store during the off-hours, we now avoid the store altogether. Or call in to Amazon for delivery, and to leave it in the backyard. Or, we send a family member out for groceries.
Connection Is Too Exhausting. Connection may include any communication with friends, family or loved ones. Many times, when a person has experienced complicated grief or cPTSD, relationships become secondary to being alone. It can take too much energy trying to talk, trying to fake-happy, or in answering questions from loved ones. Small talk can become annoying, and when a person has experienced complicated grief, it’s like they can see through b.s., or just don’t want to expend the energy dealing with it. Some just realize the shift in their priorities where casual conversations and superficial connections just don’t cut it, anymore.
Some may lose touch with those in their lives, and may not see the possible dangers of continued self-isolation, which can include an increase in depressive symptoms, even suicidal ideation.
“Recovery cannot occur in isolation.” — Dr. Judith Lewis Herman
Asyou begin working through your disconnection, you start to become more connected — to your Self, to your family, your friends, your therapist. You begin peeling back the layers that have kept you disconnected, and little by little, you start understanding the “why’s”, and the “how’s” in rebuilding your sense of security.
This doesn’t happen easily, or quickly. I think one of the biggest mistakes made is trying to rush healing, where if we try to half-ass it, or bandaid it, we run the risk of falling right back into the same pattern of traumatization. Emotional bandaids are short-term efforts that don’t last. They can’t.
Because when the core issues are dodged and avoided, they’re still there. They’re only masked.
Learning to reconnect and to begin re-engaging with our Self is a process. We have to dig deep to figure out what has been keeping us disconnected, and how to begin taking the first steps in reconnecting with our life.
People who’ve survived complex trauma don’t need pity. We need empathy. Compassion. Understanding. We need one person we can rely on through thick and thin. We need a secure base. And, through the process of healing, we learn to give ourselves that secure base.
Do you agree?
Dijke, A., et al. (2018). Affect dysregulation, psychoform dissociation, and adult relational fears mediate the relationship between childhood trauma and complex posttraumatic stress disorder independent of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 9, 1–14.
Ford, J. D. (2017). Complex trauma and complex posttraumatic stress disorder. Handbook of Trauma Psychology, 1,(15), 281- 305.
Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and recovery. New York: BasicBooks.
Herman, J. L. (1998). Recovery from psychological trauma. Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 52, S145–S150.
Karatzias, T., et al. (2021). Childhood trauma, attachment orientation, and complex PTSD (CPTSD) symptoms in a clinical sample: Implications for treatment. Development of Psychopathology: Cambridge.