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  • Writer's pictureAllison Abrams, LCSW-R

Post-Divorce Trauma and PTSD

The loss of a significant relationship can be one of life’s most difficult challenges. Divorce or separation, in particular, increases one's risk of distressful psychological symptoms.1 According to some studies, it is also a potential risk factor for suicidal behavior.

According to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), which measures the relationship between life events, stress, and susceptibility to illness, divorce is considered one of the most severe life stressors.2

Number one on the list is the death of a loved one. Given these statistics, some wonder whether the trauma of divorce can lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Defining PTSD

Once referred to as "combat stress reaction" or "battle fatigue", PTSD gained official recognition as a mental health condition in 1980 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-lll). It was understood to be a common syndrome among war veterans. We now know that one need not go to war to develop a diagnosis of PTSD or to experience PTSD-related symptoms.

The most recent edition of the DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association (the DSM-5-TR) lists PTSD under the category of "trauma and stressor-related disorders," and defines it as a result of "exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence."

This may include directly experiencing, witnessing, or learning about the traumatic event that occurred to a close family member or friend.

Symptoms of PTSD

To be diagnosed with PTSD after a trauma, a person must experience:

  • Alterations in arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the trauma (for example, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilance, and a heightened startle reaction)

  • Intrusive symptoms such as persistently re-experiencing upsetting memories, nightmares, or flashbacks.

  • Avoidance behaviors of feelings or external reminders.

  • At least two negative alterations in cognitions and mood that began or worsened after the trauma (such as inability to recall key features of the trauma, overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma, negative affect, decreased interest in activities, feeling isolated, and difficulty experiencing positive affect)

The onset of symptoms may occur immediately following the event. However, the condition may also be diagnosed as delayed onset if symptoms appear six months after the trauma.

Symptoms that last for more than one month and cause distress or functional impairment (social, occupational). These symptoms must also not be due to medication, substance use, or other illness.

In some cases, dissociative symptoms may occur, such as depersonalization (the feeling of being detached from oneself) or derealization (a feeling of unreality).

PTSD and Divorce

According to the National Health Service (NHS), a formal PTSD diagnosis does not usually apply to circumstances like "divorce, job loss or failing exams.”

“A PTSD diagnosis requires something life-threatening or a threat to bodily integrity,” says Sheela Raja, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, and author of "Overcoming Trauma and PTSD." She goes on to say that divorce would not cause PTSD. However, there are still similarities in symptoms.

Studies have found that following relationship dissolution, many people manifest symptoms similar to those experienced by people who have survived highly stressful situations.3

This means that in some cases, those who experience divorce could experience similar symptoms to those who have experienced military combat, natural disasters, rape, or other life-threatening events.4

Impact of Divorce Trauma

Post-traumatic stress symptoms that may arise in the aftermath of a divorce or separation include:5

  • Overly negative thoughts about oneself or the world

  • Exaggerated self-blame or blame of others

  • Decreased interest in activities

  • Feeling isolated

  • Irritability or aggression

  • Paranoia

  • Risky or destructive behavior

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Difficulty sleeping

It is also normal to experience symptoms of grief after a divorce. Difficulties after divorce might be a form of traumatic grief, which is characteristic of a condition known as prolonged grief disorder.

Post-Dissolution PTSD

What some researchers refer to as “post-dissolution PTSS” (post-traumatic stress symptoms) is characterized by the re-experiencing of symptoms, including intrusive thoughts or dreams about the dissolution and avoidance behaviors.

According to psychotherapist Toni Coleman, "If a person goes through an acrimonious, drawn-out, expensive, time-consuming, and lifestyle-altering can lead to debilitating symptoms of anxiety in which PTSD takes root. These symptoms are the result of the divorce trauma being embedded in the person’s subconscious mind and then experienced as recurrent fears and bad memories."

In other words, a person who has experienced a divorce can present "symptoms of illness." Coleman also goes on to say that these symptoms can come in the form of "flashbacks." For obvious reasons, this can make it difficult for a person to move on.

Divorce Trauma and Children

Divorce is difficult for children as well. According to one study, high-conflict divorces increase the risk of PTSD symptoms in children.6

Parents can help reduce the damaging impacts of divorce by focusing on a non-adversarial approach to ending the marriage rather than engaging in litigation. Avoiding arguments, working together to co-parent effectively, and talking to a mental health professional can also be helpful.

Risk Factors for Divorce Trauma

Certain risk factors appear to make some people more likely to develop a diagnosis of PTSD after a divorce or separation, such as in cases that involve intimate partner abuse, exposure to a serious threat of injury, or death. This level of trauma does not meet the severity criteria required for the diagnosis of PTSD.

A history of past trauma is also a risk factor for developing PTSD post-divorce.

“In people with PTSD from past trauma,” says psychiatrist Dr. Susan Edelman, “the breakup of a relationship can lead to worsening symptoms of post-traumatic stress and psychological well-being.”

Coping With Divorce Trauma

Divorce can be traumatic for everyone involved, but there are things that you can do to care for yourself during this difficult time. Strategies that can help include:

  • Accept your emotions: It is normal to experience difficult, distressing emotions following a divorce. Work on accepting what you feel without trying to deny or judge yourself.

  • Seek social support: Having the support of friends and family is essential. Sharing your feelings with others can relieve distress and help you feel less alone.

  • Take time to heal: Give yourself a break and focus on caring for yourself emotionally and physically.

  • Use relaxation strategies: Stress is often high during and after a divorce, so it can be helpful to utilize stress-relieving relaxation techniques, including mindfulness, deep breathing, and meditation to calm your mind and body.

If you are struggling to cope with divorce trauma, contact a professional for extra help. A qualified therapist can help you work through your feelings and develop new coping strategies that will help get you back on track.

If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

This article was originally published on VeryWellMind

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