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Unpacking Relational Trauma: Navigating the Maze of Interpersonal Hurt

In the world of emotional wounds, we often think of trauma as stemming from single, catastrophic events. But there's another type that's sneakier yet equally profound: relational trauma. This kind of trauma doesn’t come from accidents or disasters; it brews within the fabric of relationships. So, let's dive into what relational trauma means, how it messes with us, and, most importantly, how we can start stitching ourselves back together.

A sad women.

Unpacking: What is Relational Trauma Anyway?

Relational trauma, also called complex or attachment trauma, is like a slow burn in our relationships. It's the result of enduring mistreatment, neglect, or abuse from those we're supposed to trust—family, partners, friends—especially during our formative years. Interpersonal/relational trauma refers to any harmful experience inflicted by another person. This can include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, or betrayal. It's the kind of trauma that happens in the context of relationships and can have lasting effects on one's mental and emotional well-being.


The Fallout: How It Hits Us

  1. Messy Bonds: Healthy attachment is the glue of human connection. But relational trauma can leave us with attachment issues, making it challenging to bond with others healthily.

  2. Emotional Rollercoaster: Ever feel like your emotions are all over the place? Relational trauma can mess with our emotional thermostat, leaving us swinging between anger, fear, and numbness.

  3. Self-Esteem Slump: When the people who are supposed to lift us tear us down instead, it's no wonder our self-esteem takes a hit. Relational trauma can leave us feeling worthless or undeserving of love.

  4. Boundary Blurs: Where do I end, and where do I begin? Relational trauma blurs those lines, leaving us with shaky boundaries that make it hard to stand up for ourselves or know when to say no.

  5. Mental Health Mayhem: The fallout of relational trauma often includes a cocktail of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or borderline personality disorder.


A Stark Reality: Statistics on Relational Trauma

  • ACEs Study: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, found that approximately 61% of adults surveyed reported at least one adverse childhood experience, while about 16% reported four or more ACEs. These experiences, which can include relational trauma, have significant implications for mental and physical health outcomes later in life (Felitti et al., 1998).

  • Prevalence of Relational Trauma: Research suggests that relational trauma is widespread. According to a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, approximately 59% of individuals in the United States report exposure to at least one type of interpersonal trauma during their lifetime (Kilpatrick et al., 2013).


Finding the Way Out Healing Strategies

  1. Therapy Tune-Up: Therapy isn’t just for "serious" trauma. It's a lifeline for anyone struggling with relational wounds. Find a therapist who gets you and try approaches like CBT, DBT, or EMDR.

  2. Love Yourself First: Sounds cheesy, but self-compassion is critical. Treat yourself like you would a good friend—with kindness, patience, and understanding.

  3. Build Your Tribe: Surround yourself with people who lift you, not tear you down. Cultivate relationships with folks who get it and make you feel safe and supported.

  4. Stay Present: Mindfulness isn't just for monks. Practice staying present to help you ride the waves of emotion without getting swept away.

  5. Own Your Space: Setting boundaries isn’t just okay; it's crucial. Learn to say no to things that don’t serve you and yes to the things that do.


A women walking up stairs.



Wrapping Up

Relational trauma may be a tough nut to crack, but it’s not impossible to overcome. We can rewrite our stories by understanding their sneaky ways and arming ourselves with healing tools like therapy, self-love, supportive relationships, and boundary-setting. So, let’s roll up our sleeves, patch up those wounds, and step into a future where resilience, strength, and healing reign supreme.


References:

  • Felitti, V. J., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258.

  • Kilpatrick, D. G., et al. (2013). Prevalence of PTSD in a national cohort of U.S. adults: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions-III. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(5), 537–547.

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