Signs You Have Relationship PTSD After A Traumatic Event

Although the end of a relationship can be catastrophic, not everyone who goes through a breakup will experience relationship PTSD, also known as posttraumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS). In fact, it's important to realize the difference between the emotional rollercoaster that follows a breakup and PTRS, because the latter has a severe psychological impact that can interrupt our daily lives until we get therapy to work through it.


"[PTRS is a] newly proposed mental health syndrome that occurs subsequent to the experience of trauma in an intimate relationship," relationship expert Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford tells Bustle. "It includes the intrusive and arousal symptoms of [PTSD] but lacks the avoidance symptoms required for a diagnosis of PTSD due to a very different mode of coping with the traumatized state from that which is characteristic of individuals with PTSD."

One of the challenges with PTSD is that it doesn't always develop immediately following the traumatic experience. Sometimes it takes months or even years before you realize you're in the throes of it. According to the National Center for PTSD, 8% of women and 4% of men will struggle with PTSD at least once in their lifetime. Because of this, it's important to recognize the signs, if only to know you're not losing your mind but dealing with a mental health issue that needs attention.


Feelings of intense anger toward your ex

Coming out of a toxic relationship can really do a number on us. It doesn't matter if it was emotionally, mentally, verbally, or physically abusive, the negative impact on our psyche can be incredibly damaging, and it can manifest itself in multiple ways. One of those ways is intense feelings of anger, even rage, toward your ex. You may find yourself fantasizing about ruining their life or wanting to act out in violent ways at the very thought of them.


While these feelings are normal, especially after the end of an abusive relationship, they can also be all-consuming. It's hard to go about your day when you're focused on revenge. However, nothing good ever comes from allowing yourself to get heated up and explosive. Instead, when you feel the rage, turn that energy elsewhere. Consider pressing play on a sweaty, heart-pumping workout, screaming into a pillow until you feel a release, or throwing something, like a tomato at the pavement outside. Granted, these things won't eliminate your PTSD, but they will offer the catharsis you need in that particular moment.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.


Flashbacks and night terrors

A common sign of PTSD is what's called a "re-experiencing symptom." According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one of the ways PTSD is diagnosed in adults is if someone has a re-experiencing symptom at least once a month. In flashbacks, this symptom appears in the form of reliving the trauma again and again. But it's not just your brain hard at work with these re-experiencing events, your body too can relive those memories in flashbacks. Sweating, trembling, a racing heart, and/or being sick to your stomach can also be symptoms. How you responded to the toxic behavior in your relationship is how your body will respond now when you have a flashback.


If you're fortunate enough to not experience flashbacks, there's still the possibility you could suffer from night terrors, which are also a "re-experiencing symptom." Night terrors are more intense versions of nightmares. You may find yourself waking up in the middle of the night screaming, terrified, and believing you're back there in that relationship.

Self-destructive behavior

While it's normal after a breakup to hit the bar with your friends and drown yourself in a couple of martinis, there's a big difference between going out with your buddies to numb the pain and outright self-destructive behavior. With self-destructive behavior, it's not just a few nights out with friends but rather excessive drinking or engaging in drug use that you may not have done before. It can also include driving too fast, walking into traffic without acknowledging the lights, maxing out credit cards, or getting involved with someone who is totally bad news.


This behavior is the result of the change in your emotional reactions to things. Whereas before PTSD you may have been able to control your emotions in a healthy way, now you can no longer do that. Your responses to how you're feeling and your reactions to other people and certain situations are suddenly off the charts, and overindulging in things that you know are inherently bad for you becomes your coping mechanism.

Difficulty sleeping and eating

Although being unable to sleep or eat after a breakup pretty much comes with the territory of heartache, when you have PTSD the source of these now-difficult things is the result of arousal and reactivity symptoms. You don't just have waves of not being able to sleep properly — instead, it's constant. You feel strange, on edge, and "off." Feelings of anxiety are inescapable and your sleeping patterns and eating habits can be affected. You might find yourself without an appetite at all or overly, insatiably hungry. You could find yourself either sleeping too much or being unable to sleep at night. 


Lack of proper sleep and nourishment just adds to the feelings of anxiety and irritability, so it can seem like you're in a vicious cycle with no end in sight. It can potentially take quite a while before you're able to restore a proper balance and get back to healthy amounts of shut-eye and eating habits.


While it can't be stated enough that you should never blame yourself for a toxic relationship, it can still be hard to convince yourself that what happened was because of your ex's behavior. These negative and guilt-ridden thoughts about oneself are the result of cognitive and mood symptoms that come with PTSD. You may question why you didn't get out sooner, what you did wrong, and how you could have fixed things. These thoughts can be persistent as you go over your relationship again and again looking for places and situations where you could have done something differently.


You don't realize that getting out of the relationship is admirable and something for which you should congratulate yourself because your thoughts have been so manipulated by the trauma. The reality of who you are and your worth has been distorted — first by the trauma and now by the PTSD. Although easier said than done, it's important to recognize the truth: it's not your fault. 

Obsessive thoughts of past experiences

Falling under the tier of "re-experiencing symptoms" are the obsessive and intrusive thoughts that come with PTSD. Just when you think you've shaken a thought of a specific event or the overall trauma from your mind, another one pops up, then another, and another. You find yourself ruminating over your ex and the relationship, then behaving in ways to try to center or neutralize yourself. Sometimes the obsessive thinking becomes so extreme that it may develop into obsessive-compulsive disorder.


According to a 2014 study published in Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine, 30% of those with PTSD will develop OCD within a 12-month time period. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders has found that the co-occurrence of both these disorders is prevalent in 19% to 41% of people. Although the link between OCD and PTSD exists, it doesn't guarantee that if you have one disorder, the other is inevitable. It just shows that the obsessive thinking that comes from trauma can, in some cases, reach obsessive-compulsive proportions.

Anxiety about new relationships

Once you've been burned by someone, getting back out there and being able to trust implicitly without fear and anxiety can be very tricky. If it's more than just a burn and the trauma is steeped in abuse, then being able to navigate future relationships requires a lot of effort. Relationships in general need time and energy, as well as the ability to effectively communicate. But when you have PTSD, the work necessary for a partnership to flourish is even heavier because you're working on yourself and your relationship. It can all feel like too much, especially if your trust issues feel insurmountable.


With PTSD, you may find that you're unable to have healthy relationships, and even the connection you have with family and friends might become strained. In romantic relationships, your anxiety over the "what if" can be so intense that you may find yourself sabotaging what you have with someone new as a way to protect yourself from future pain, abuse, or trauma. 

Overall psychological distress

However you want to define it, PTSD or PTRS, is something we carry with us for our entire lives. The result of this type of relationship trauma shows itself in overall psychological distress where you find yourself unable to do the things you could do before and handle emotions and feelings in a healthy way. Your ability to function in everyday activities is impaired and sometimes you feel completely lost and confused. It's not just a matter of lack of sleep, avoiding new relationships, self-blame, and re-experiencing everything you went through, but it can spiral into mental health disorders like depression.


Although PTSD is something that you may not be able to outrun, there are ways to treat it with professional help. Treatment may involve weekly therapy, and medication may be added to your recovery process depending on the severity of your symptoms, per NHS. As with other disorders, you'll be given tools to learn how to manage your PTSD so you can successfully live with it and keep the symptoms at bay.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.