Overcoming Trauma Associated with Narcissistic Abuse

Written by Angela Atkinson

If you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse in a toxic relationship, you have likely experienced significant and ongoing trauma. And while it might feel like no one in your life gets what you’ve been through, you’re far from alone. In fact, according to the National Council For Behavioral Health, approximately 70% of Americans (over the age of 18) have experienced trauma in their lifetime. That is well over 200 million people – and that’s not even considering the fact that so many lives have been permanently altered thanks to the pandemic.

What is narcissistic abuse?

The term “narcissistic abuse” is thrown around a lot these days. While not all abuse technically involves narcissists,  a narcissist is involved more often than you might think. Malignant narcissists have a seriously impaired ability to experience emotional and compassionate empathy, and they are known to act from that perspective.

In layman’s terms, that means that, essentially, they don’t care how you or anyone else feels, and you can tell because of the way they treat the people around them.

Narcissistic abuse involves subtle manipulation, pervasive control tactics, gaslighting, and emotional and psychological abuse.  In most cases, narcissistic abusers might be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder – if they actually go to a psychologist for diagnosis, but this rarely happens.

Due to the nature of this personality disorder, most narcissists don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with them, and they are likely to look outward at other people if there are problems in their lives. They may be overtly narcissistic, or they may be more of a covert narcissist. In either case, anyone in a close relationship with one of these toxic people will be used as a form of narcissistic supply and not treated like an actual person. Sadly, even the most intelligent and educated people can be manipulated and abused by a narcissist.

What is a toxic relationship?

A toxic relationship is similar to a dysfunctional relationship, but it is in many ways far less repairable. While therapy and ongoing effort can repair many dysfunctional relationships, toxic relationships are physically and/or psychologically unsafe. They can even be life-threatening for one or both partners involved. A toxic relationship involves more negativity than positivity, and it doesn’t emotionally support one or both of the people involved. When narcissistic abuse is part of a toxic relationship, only the narcissist’s needs are addressed and the victim is actively manipulated and abused in order to facilitate this.

Toxic relationships will involve resentment, contempt, communication problems, and varying forms of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. In the most extreme cases, you may need medical help and intense therapy to begin recovery. I always suggest seeing your doctor and getting checked out on a regular basis anyway, and I think it is an important first step in narcissistic abuse recovery. This way, you’ll know for sure what you’ve got to deal with, and you can get your doctor’s advice on taking the next steps in your personal journey toward recovery.

But in most cases, you can manage with some support and intentional healing. In nearly all cases, people who are victims of narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships will experience some level of ongoing trauma and will struggle with the after-effects long after the relationship ends. In any case, intentionally working toward narcissistic abuse recovery can make a significant difference in both the length of your recovery as well as the quality of your life during and afterward.

What is trauma? 

Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as: “The emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event.” The effects of trauma can vary from person to person. Some people may be minimally affected by trauma. Others may be debilitated by the effects. In narcissistic abuse, ongoing trauma related to gaslighting and other forms of manipulation and psychological abuse can lead to trauma bonding.

In addition to prolonged psychological abuse, physical violence, and other forms of abuse, trauma events include things like a car accident, a natural disaster such as a tornado or hurricane, the death of a loved one, serious illnesses, or divorce. In some cases, minor trauma can even occur as the result of seemingly positive changes, such as moving, getting married, or changing jobs.

Many narcissistic abuse survivors also experience trauma bonding with their abusers. This video offers some additional insight into trauma bonding and how it affects you during and after narcissistic abuse.

Emotional And Psychological Trauma as a Side-Effect of Narcissistic Abuse

What happens when you survive a traumatic event? 

During each trauma you experience in your toxic relationship, your body goes into defense mode, creating the stress response which results in a variety of symptoms, both physical and mental. You will experience your emotions more intensely and likely behave differently as a result of the trauma. The body’s stress response includes physical symptoms such as a spike in blood pressure, an increase in sweating and heart rate, as well as a loss of appetite.

How does your body respond to a traumatic event?

During episodes of narcissistic abuse, whether they’re psychological or physical, your body will have a stress response. This will affect your thoughts, your moods, and your emotions, but also your physical health.  Your body perceives what you’re dealing with as a physical threat, whether or not you’re in physical danger. This is why so many survivors find themselves living in fight or flight mode (or even experience an ongoing freeze response). The flight or fight response causes your body to produce chemicals that prepare your body for an emergency. As you might imagine, this can profoundly affect you.

The symptoms involved can lead to a variety of complications, including the following.

  • You get anxious.
  • You lose your appetite.
  • You suffer from other stomach and digestive issues.
  • You sweat more.
  • You breathe faster (respiratory rate increases).
  • Your heart beats faster.
  • Your blood pressure goes up to a dangerous level.

There has been some real hope found in Polyvagal Theory for healing the physical response to ongoing trauma.

How does your mind respond to the trauma associated with narcissistic abuse?

Following each traumatic event you go through during narcissistic abuse, you will deal with uncomfortable and potentially devastating emotional and psychological effects. For example, it might mean you deal with experience denial and/or shock. So many survivors of narcissistic abuse tell me that they do not even realize that they are being abused until they feel too stuck to leave – or until they are discarded and trying to figure out what happened.

In any case, you might find yourself living in the stress response for days or weeks before going through a series of emotions that could lead to healing. Note: while some level of relief may occur for those who are still dealing with narcissistic abuse, it is very difficult to fully heal unless you free yourself of the ongoing abuse. In most cases, that means you’ll need to go no contact with your abuser (or low contact, if you have children together).

When you stick around and continue to tolerate narcissistic abuse, you’re doing more than making your life harder. The ongoing abuse makes it nearly impossible to heal, and this can result in a serious impact on your overall health and wellbeing.

Symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma include the following. 

  • You’ll feel shocked (at least initially) by the abuse.
  • You’ll deny that it’s even happening, or you’ll doubt that it did.
  • You’ll find yourself feeling foggy and sometimes confused, and you won’t be able to concentrate.
  • You’ll be irritable and you might feel angry a lot.
  • You will deal with mood swings that might feel out of control.
  • You’ll be anxious and you might feel scared or on edge all the time.
  • You’ll often feel guilty, and you’ll blame yourself for everything that goes wrong (in your relationship and otherwise).
  • You’ll suffer from shame, whether it’s related to the fact that you’re tolerating abuse, or it’s related to the self-image the abuser has created for you.
  • You’ll self-isolate and withdraw from your friends and extended family, and this will leave you feeling more alone than ever.
  • You’ll find yourself feeling hopeless and you’ll always have an underlying sense of sadness.
  • Eventually, you’ll go numb, and you’ll feel like you’re not even living, but just “getting through the days.”
  • You might find yourself just sort of “existing,” and you might neglect your own physical needs, your responsibilities, and even, at least on some levels, your kids or other people you care for.

These responses are the result of evolution – your body has evolved to respond this way to effectively cope with an emergency, whether it’s to stand and fight or to run away as fast as humanly possible. Unfortunately, our bodies and brains weren’t designed to deal with ongoing narcissistic abuse, so these issues can become debilitating for victims.

What are the long-term effects of ongoing trauma related to narcissistic abuse? 

PTSD & C-PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder often diagnosed in soldiers, as well as in survivors of abuse, in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Post-traumatic stress disorder can leave people feeling anxious long after they experience trauma, whether it results in a physical injury or not. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of anything to do with the trauma, panic attacks, poor concentration, sleep issues, depression, anger, and substance abuse.

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a serious mental health condition affecting a large percentage of victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse. This disorder can take years to treat and many professionals aren’t familiar with its symptoms or misdiagnose it. They may even victim-blame if they aren’t familiar with the subtle tricks of a narcissist. Unfortunately, it can be a lifelong condition, but it can be managed with mindfulness and behavior modification, among other therapies and modalities.

Depression

Depression is a very common issue for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse, manifesting in a persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities – both daily “chores” or responsibilities as well as things you normally really enjoy doing. Depression significantly affects your daily life in ways that not everyone understands – and it can also affect your physical health in a number of ways. When we’re talking about depression, we don’t mean those moments where you occasionally feel sad or a little down – we’re talking about a lasting experience of intense negative emotions such as hopelessness, anxiety, helplessness, and negativity.

Not only can these issues affect your health as noted, but both the physical and mental effects of trauma may lead you to practice bad habits that negatively contribute to an overall lack of wellbeing.

How do you recover from trauma related to narcissistic abuse? 

If you’re ready to start healing from the abuse you’ve experienced, you’ve come to the right place. Now that you’ve recognized that you’ve dealt with narcissistic abuse, you’re ready to start learning how to deal with and heal from the ongoing trauma you experienced during your toxic relationship.

Start With Self Care

Self care is always important, and when you’re trying to heal from significant trauma, it is even more important than ever. Especially during the first days and weeks of recovery, you might find yourself neglecting your self-care. You might also beat yourself up too much, and this is the time when self-compassion must be a big part of your plan. So be kind to yourself – you’ve had enough abuse from the narcissist. Don’t continue it on their behalf.

Instead, be gentle with yourself and take the extra time you need to get a healthy diet, hydrate, rest, and nourish your soul and emotions. Journal, exercise, or do any favorite activity that makes you feel good. All of these things can help you restore your sense of well-being and wholeness in the moment and will help your overall state of mind anytime.

Discover the Right Resources for Your Recovery

Start by finding out what kinds of narcissistic abuse recovery resources are available to you, and which ones will best fit your personal needs and your budget. Understanding your needs and which of the available options is best for you going to be a critical step in moving past emotional or psychological trauma you’ve death with through narcissistic abuse. Talk to family, friends, or trusted people in your life who may understand what you’ve experienced, or reach out to a narcissistic abuse recovery support group.

If you need to report an event to a professional or law enforcement. do so. The same if you may need to see a doctor. Do your best to make informed choices here and do what is best for you and your health and wellbeing.

Understand the Effects of Narcissistic Abuse-Related Trauma

Knowledge is power when it comes to narcissistic abuse recovery. Not only will understanding what happens mentally and physically during and after the abuse give you insight into your experiences, but it can also help you learn how to help yourself heal.

Plus, if you’re anything like me, looking at the situation from the perspective of a “scientist,” as in logically and not emotionally, can help you find the catalyst you need to get out of a toxic relationship and to heal your whole life on a more profound scale. This is especially helpful for diverting your most extreme emotions if you can logically understand that what you have experienced isn’t your fault – and then to go deeper and look at how your own psychology as well as the narcissist’s psychology almost doomed you to end up in a toxic relationship in the first place.

With this kind of self-awareness, you can intentionally redesign yourself. And while you definitely cannot become the same person you once were after you’ve experienced narcissistic abuse, you can absolutely become a better, more enlightened, and intentionally-created version. I like to think this is the one silver lining to narcissistic abuse recovery. Clearly, we’d all rather avoid having the narcissistic abuse experience in our lives – but since it is so soul-crushing and psychologically damaging that it breaks us down to the point that we feel like a shell of a person, we have to rebuild ourselves anyway.

You can look at this as a horrible injustice, and you’d be right. But the hidden bit of light here is that you can literally rebuild yourself to become the person you really, truly want to be – the person maybe you should have been all along. And this leads me to my next point.

Overcoming the Effects of Narcissistic Abuse-Related Trauma

Depending on what level of trauma you experienced during narcissistic abuse, the process for dealing with it varies. In cases of shorter relationships and those that aren’t as significant (such as a co-worker of a few months, versus a 20-year marriage, for example), you might feel better with time. But most of us will need to go through a whole process that will involve an extended period of self-reflection, research, learning, coping, grieving, and ultimately, and personal evolution.

After you’ve worked through the painful parts of the narcissistic abuse recovery process, the silver lining is fully in place, and you’re ready to begin discovering who you are, what you want, and what your life will look like from here on out.  (THIS is the good part!)

It’s around this time that you’ll begin to feel a sort of shift in your narcissistic abuse recovery, where things will start to become clearer than ever. It’s as though you’re nearing the end of a lifelong existential crisis – and you can really begin to feel yourself evolving into a whole new level of consciousness – and that can be a beautiful thing.

Get Help With Healing From Narcissistic Abuse Related Trauma

Overcoming emotional and physical trauma associated with narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships can be a long, difficult process. It takes digging deep and doing the work each day to move past the all-encompassing and life-altering level of trauma brought on by the ongoing abuse.

Please remember that you’re are worth it and that you deserve to be happy and healthy. And, whether we like it or not, when we’ve experienced narcissistic abuse and the trauma related to it, our health, happiness, and wellbeing literally depend on doing this work. Take the time to heal, empower yourself, and move forward from psychological and emotional trauma.

Remember that in every stage of trauma recovery, getting support is going to be critical. Whatever path you choose, the level to which you share your experiences with people in your life is a personal decision. Don’t keep things to yourself, but understand who is going to be a “safe” person with whom you can safely discuss the abuse and trauma you’ve experienced.

Remember that not everyone has experienced what you have, so they may not fully understand the depth of it. Trying to explain the psychological abuse narcissists inflict on you can feel impossible when you’re talking to someone who just doesn’t “get it,” if you understand what I mean.

You might even want to hire a narcissistic abuse recovery coach to help you work through your recovery –  or even just to have someone who will understand and help you process what you’ve been through.

Resources for Healing After Trauma Caused By Narcissistic Abuse

Professional Help for Managing Trauma and Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

If you are experiencing symptoms that are affecting your day-to-day life, it is important to get professional if needed. There is no shame in working with experts to improve your overall health and wellbeing. Consider talking to experts if you experience the following symptoms.

  • Ongoing distress, anxiety, sadness, etc for multiple weeks.
  • Feeling like you’re stuck or you have an inability to function in your life.
  • Feeling hopeless all the time.
  • Your work or school is affected.
  • Your daily life and activities have been affected.
  • You are using drugs or alcohol to cope.

It never hurts to start by contacting your family doctor or mental health professionals. Also, consider talking to a clergy member about a referral if you go to church. They may know a professional in your community that you can work with. You can also check out the narcissistic abuse recovery support resources here.

Self-Assessments for Managing Trauma and Narcissistic Abuse Recovery 

More Resources for Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

  • Best Books on Narcissistic Abuse Recovery
  • Comprehensive Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Glossary: This is a comprehensive guide to words and phrases (related to narcissism, NPD and related conditions, narcissistic abuse, and narcissistic abuse recovery) that are commonly used in articles, videos, and narcissistic abuse recovery support groups. Defined here as specifically how they relate to narcissism, narcissistic abuse, and narcissistic abuse recovery, these terms have been developed by psychologists, coaches, therapists, and survivors of narcissistic abuse who need a way to understand and overcome the abuse.
  • FAQ Help: Whenever you need help with something related to this site or you want to know how to find something, join a group or otherwise deal with an issue you’re having, visit our new FAQ Help page.
  • Self-Care for Survivors: This is a page that covers everything you need to know about self-care, from how to build your own self-care kit to how to sign up for self-care support, and more.
  • New Resources Page: This is a one-stop overview of narcissism, NPD, and narcissistic abuse recovery, offering a long list of resources that will be helpful for you.
  • Stalking Resources Center: If your narcissist is a stalker, the information and resources on this page will help you get and stay safe.
  • Visit Our Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Resources Page

*Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only.  It’s very important to always check with your doctor before taking any action that could affect your physical or mental health.  

 

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