Narcissistic abuse causes untold damage to a person’s mind, body, and spirit, leaving them with crippling post-traumatic stress disorder. Healing PTSD after narcissistic abuse therefore becomes a compulsory component of recovery.
Normally, after a shock is over, the nervous system calms the person down, and they shake off the experience.
In the case of PTSD, the overwhelming experience is so immense, it ‘breaks’ the nervous system’s off switch, and leaves it in a permanent state of fight/flight. This leads to a break in reality, a fragmented sense of self, and crippling flashback episodes.
When PTSD Gets Complex
PTSD is typically attributed to a singular and devastating incident like war, an accident or a natural disaster. Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD for short, has the same core as PTSD, with one major difference.
In time, these experiences fuse into a monolith which is easily triggered in the present, unleashing a torrent of crippling emotion. It is effectively a piling debt of unprocessed emotions which is due all at once any time you are triggered.
Often a person suffering C-PTSD from narcissistic abuse simply believes they are an anxious and flawed human being, rather than someone who is exhibiting the symptoms of long-term abuse.
Why Narcissistic Abuse Causes PTSD
In all cases of C-PTSD, it was an incapacity to process a series of overwhelming emotional experiences which caused the trauma. This typically begins in childhood with an abusive or narcissistic parent, where we are too fragile to comprehend what is happening to us.
However, narcissistic abuse in our adult intimate relationships can also cause C-PTSD. This is because we are attached, and therefore vulnerable.
When the person you open your heart to abuses you, the damage is magnified many times over. The result is crippling flashbacks which rock your self-esteem and regularly disrupt your daily life.
The Signs Of C-PTSD After Narcissistic Abuse
The signs of C-PTSD are often hard to pinpoint, since they developed over time due to repeated narcissistic abuse. Like the boiling frog, we were exposed to abuse gradually and are only now realising its debilitating effect.
PTSD with its fight/flight response is associated with fear and panic. However, for C-PTSD, we need to widen our scope to include the full spectrum of emotions:
- Anxiety/Fear: A sense that you are not safe, that your survival is at stake. This can take on the form of general anxiety or a panic attack.
- Toxic Shame: A sense that you are irredeemably and fundamentally flawed. Your body collapses, your mind goes blank, you start compulsively comparing yourself to others, and you berate yourself over and over. This is what John Bradshaw called a ‘toxic shame attack’.
- Chronic Guilt: A constant, burning sense that you have done something wrong. You always feel you have displeased another person, and must somehow make amends.
- Abandonment depression: An inescapable ache in your chest, a feeling that you have nobody in the world and that you will be alone forever.
When a person grows up with narcissistic abuse or leaves an abusive relationship (or both), they carry the lingering coping behaviours which helped them survive the abuse. The first of these to notice is compulsive thinking.
A person with PTSD is usually in a state of fight/flight, having lost control of the ‘off’ switch. To help them cope, their mind goes into overdrive, trying to fight a demon that no longer exists.
Those with C-PTSD think about everything and anything constantly. In reality, they are creating a diversion from what they feel inside.
The Symptoms Of C-PTSD After Narcissistic Abuse
The symptoms of C-PTSD are:
1. Constant Anxiety
The traumatised person has a need to always be doing something or working toward something in the future. They might have a hard time falling asleep, with anxiety corroding their capacity to relax.
Those carrying trauma also carry a constant sense of impending doom. They catastrophise often, being bombarded by ‘what if’ thinking.
2. Panic Attacks
Repressed trauma has incredible power. Panic attacks are like erupting volcanoes of fear. They feel like death, as though the terror will devour you until there is nothing left.
3. Low self-esteem
You lack confidence, and start isolating yourself from others to protect against overwhelming shame. The more abuse you suffer, the worse it gets.
To cope with the torrent of painful emotions, a target of narcissistic abuse will escape into their imagination, while the world turns into an abstraction. In short, they ‘check out’. This is the psychological equivalent of sticking your head in the sand to protect yourself from overwhelming terror, shame or guilt.
A person with C-PTSD might become chronically nice to those close to them, regardless of how they are being treated. This ‘nice person’ persona is a way to numb negative emotions with loving feelings. A person with C-PTSD usually has low boundaries and is afraid to say no or rock the boat.
6. Repressed Rage
Having your boundaries violated, being humiliated, constricted, terrorised or abused all take their toll. Yet the body never forgets.
With their fight/flight response on a hairline trigger, the traumatised person can never rest. They are always hyper-vigilant. They tend to have a hard time trusting, which makes staying in relationships far more difficult.
8. Ruptured Sense Of ‘Home’
The person with C-PTSD has a fragile sense of Self which extends into belonging and community. They have a hard time feeling at home anywhere.
Activating The Warrior: Standing Your Ground Against C-PTSD
With the source of the abuse now gone, this shame-and-fear-based energy finally has a chance to bubble to the surface as the above ‘symptoms’ of C-PTSD.
This energy wants your Higher Self to recognise it, legitimise its right to exist, and finally, to provide it space to be expressed. This means being truly present with it, and allowing it to roam and play itself out in Your presence.
‘Your’ is in capital letters here because it represents not your mind or your ego, but the higher ‘you’ which lies beyond and above your mind.
To embrace your trauma is to exist in a state of spaciousness and intensity the likes of which you have never experienced. It requires a warrior mindset.
During a flashback, look for the intensity and heaviness in your body. Be alert, but relax your body. Become the feeling. Surrender to the difficulty of what you are experiencing in this moment. Look directly into this wave from the past. Go into it. Do this by directing all of your focus into it, gently brushing aside your thoughts and conflicting instincts.
To evolve is to take on a form that never existed before. You are capable of this, and you do it through faith, courage and conscious presence in the face of terror.
However, standing in front of the dragon is not always a wise strategy. You could get burnt to a crisp. Rather, you need agility and guile if you are to succeed in this fight. You need to pendulate in and out of the hot zone.
Pendulating Between Safety and C-PTSD Flashbacks
By becoming mindful of your body, including its emotions and sensations, you can witness the symptoms of C-PTSD in real time. Sometimes this will be within your threshold, and other times beyond it — especially during panic or toxic shame attacks.
You will need to face it all eventually, although you will also need to be tactful. Trauma is serious business, and requires a light touch. It takes many back-and-forth attempts over a long period.
In moments where you feel overwhelmed with anxiety, heaviness or fear, go to a quiet place and try the following:
- Invite your body to relax, especially your shoulders, stomach, thighs and buttocks.
- Breathe in a ‘box’ rhythm: 4 seconds in, hold for 4 seconds, 4 seconds out, hold for 4 seconds, and repeat. You can use a guided box-breathing meditation on your smartphone to help you.
- While breathing in a box rhythm, locate the intensity or heaviness in your body. It can be in your skull, throat, chest, belly or in multiple places. It can also be a vague feeling.
- Welcome the negative feeling, and create a point of focus within it.
- Become aware of yourself as the observer of the intensity.
- Continue to welcome the excess energy while relaxing further into it, staying with it as long as possible.
Having Grace In The Face Of PTSD Turmoil
It is normal that, in the heat of the moment, the gravitational pull of fear, shame or guilt will hinder your capacity to focus. If you do manage to persist, you will eventually notice a shift. Emotions cannot kill you, even though it feels like they can. Courage leads to metamorphosis.
Nonetheless, trauma is not to be trifled with. Easy does it. If you reach a point where you cannot tolerate any more, you should turn your focus back to the world. Anchor yourself in an external source of safety until you feel ready to try again. This is the basic rhythm of pendulation.
Some ways in which you can anchor yourself in a feeling of safety are:
- Take a warm bath.
- Spend time with someone who makes you feel good.
- Watch a movie or TV show.
- Listen to some soothing music.
- Go for a walk.
- Do some exercise.
When you get comfortable with pendulation, you can use it as a base to move into bodywork, which takes trauma release to the next level.
Returning From PTSD Body Exile
Using the principle of pendulation, you can take the fight to the source. Through movement, touch and vibration, you can awaken the body. Bodywork is a tremendous way of releasing old emotions and learning to manage higher energy states with skill.
Some practices you can try for re-integrating the body are:
- Yoga: While the poses can be challenging, staying with it is extremely rewarding. Embracing the discomfort while breathing deeply induces transformative states of consciousness which stay with you a lifetime.
- Humming: The vibrations from humming meditation can help bring awareness to your inner body.
- Dancing: Dancing awakens the energy body and connects us with our body wisdom, allowing us to intuit movement in a spontaneous and fun way. Ecstatic dance classes are currently growing in popularity.
- Singing: Songs awaken particular emotions in us, and their vibrations are a wonderful way to experience the body with its infinite frequencies.
- Somatic experiencing therapy: Visit traumahealing.org for more information on this body-oriented approach to therapy.
In each of the above activities, maintaining awareness of sensations during and after is crucial. You want to feel your body, and be conscious of that feeling. Presence is crucial.
Learn To Love The Fear
Your journey into C-PTSD is to face the dragon of narcissistic abuse. It is a harrowing and immensely difficult undertaking which, when you successfully navigate it, leads to the emergence of the person you were supposed to be; strong, all-sensing and wise.
The more fear we allow, the stronger we become, and the more insight we gain. Furthermore, we become more capable of channelling the hero energy which we lacked when suffering narcissistic abuse, but which we had inside us all along.
This also applies to shame and guilt. The more releasing and presence we do around those emotions, the more able we are to feel our divine nature.
Measuring Success: The Layers Of C-PTSD Flashbacks
Yes, you will be normal again, even though it feels like you won’t. C-PTSD is a stubborn force, but it can be dislodged. With a plan, good support, and courage and patience, you can release a great deal of it.
The most crucial requirement is space. Whether it’s the therapist’s office, your favourite spots, time with a good friend, or your journal, you need to have space for the healing to begin. At its core, healing means having physical, mental and emotional space to feel your trauma.
C-PTSD can be exhausting and unfathomable. You can’t grasp it. This is expected. There’s nothing wrong with you.
Trauma by design happened because it was impossible to grasp. Now that you are facing it again, you will still initially encounter the feeling of helplessness that came with the original trauma of narcissistic abuse.
To begin with, you don’t need to make sense of anything. You only need to experience and feel what is arising inside you. Understanding will come in time, and the feeling of being ‘normal’ again will also come.
Like the stages of a video game, see your trauma from narcissistic abuse as a ‘level’ which you must work through. It’s frustrating, it’s uncomfortable and it’s downright agonising for brief moments. Yet once you find your way to surrender and focus, you can rest in the joy of your spiritual growth, and then prepare yourself for the next level.
Narcissistic abuse can cripple you, or it can be the force which helps you actualise into your authentic Self. It is only a matter of perception, and a willingness to face your dragon with the heart of a hero.