Through the years, I’ve received many emails and messages asking me to write about trauma bonding and how to release a trauma bond.
This is NOT a subject that can be explained in a paragraph or two. Irena has been working hard on this post for weeks (I am so thankful for her and Lorelle taking care of PMS in between my posts for a few weeks while I work on my book). There is a lot of information out there on trauma bonds but I wanted to provide a one-stop post for you that makes sense of and gets to the root of it all – especially how to break free. I lived in that prison for many years and this post is everything I wish I had when I was in the grip of it.
Irena, take it away my friend…
You may feel pretty crazy over there in your trauma bonded trance for someone who mistreated you, but know there are people actually eating dirt out there and making more sense than some of the well-meaning advice I heard while I was getting over various forms of heartbreak.
We are told to stop fixating, face the fear of moving on, focus on yourself, and that time heals all wounds. When in fact, the symptoms of a traumatic reaction to a trauma bond make these very things feel nearly impossible.
What’s more, when taken in the context of trauma bonding, prolonged grief over the loss of a relationship is far from irrational, even when that relationship was a toxic one. If you feel more stunned and immobilized as time wears on, this is the reaction of your organism actually working to protect you from a perceived, ongoing threat.
You are not crazy. Your body’s physiological state is just trying to communicate with you in a way that you may not quite understand yet.
There are people all over the world who experience cravings for dirt or clay. This is called geophagy and clearly sounds so insane that people feel ashamed to admit their cravings. Yet research has found that these cravings may indicate a lack in bodily mineral content or may function as the body’s protective response to pathogens in pregnant women or children. The content of dirt or clay may serve as a protective barrier in the stomach.
What may FEEL mentally and physiologically irrational, actually makes sense. This does not mean that anemic people should make themselves a nice dirt snack with their coffee this afternoon. It does mean that feeling estranged, ashamed, and ignoring the REALITY of the craving, without looking further into what it indicates, will never resolve their organism’s unmet need.
I only started to understand trauma bonding when I stopped feeling ashamed and started trusting my body’s own physiological messengers.
Breaking a trauma bond can feel agonizing. What’s the point of trying to accept the reality of a toxic relationship, go no contact, and try to move on with your life when you only feel worse as time wears on?
Breaking a trauma bond comes with intense withdrawal symptoms, flashbacks, cravings for the toxic person, compulsive thoughts about what happened, and an anxious state that may make you feel like you are going backward, without abate.
This is going to sound counterintuitive at first, but these very symptoms are confirmation that staying away from the toxic relationship is absolutely imperative to your health. This is because trauma resides as a physiological response to a perceived threat. Your organism knows and reacts, at the core, gut, and instinctual level, when a person or situation is harmful.
And while you may be fully consciously aware NOW that you are no longer in the relationship, your body is still registering an ongoing threat. This is manifesting in symptoms that certainly make you feel like you are going crazy — or maybe even make you feel as if you were never meant to stay away in the first place.
But all this DOES NOT mean that your body is trying to indicate to you that you are forever cosmically tied to that dirtbag who mistreated you, used you, and broke your heart. It means that the trauma that may have occurred before the relationship, during the relationship, and when the relationship ended, continues to live inside of you. It continues to live as a memory and echo that has no orientation to time and place.
You are feeling this way because, physiologically, you still don’t feel safe.
You will NOT be the person who longs for the person who mistreated you forever. But it’s going to be hard to get there if your strategy is to grit your teeth, brace yourself, and steel even more energy in trying to fight your body’s frantic physiological responses to the trauma in the trauma bond, through sheer will, when you are already frozen in emergency mode.
Stay with me. I’ll explain.
We look into trauma bonding as a way to explain, romanticize, and decode the characteristics of a relationship that feels or once felt so precious.
Here’s the gut punch that usually gets lost —when you’re in a trauma bond, and the bond “breaks,” the trauma remains.
If you’re a cookie in an Oreo and the other cookie leaves, guess who is stuck with what seems like even more trauma filling than you started with?
This “trauma filling” can help to explain why your mind, body, and soul are registering a frenetic, obsessive, red level, emergency breaker craving for a toxic ex, toxic relationship, or situation.
The Trauma Bond
The reason for this hyper-aroused-anxiety-trance lies in some part to the nature of trauma bonding itself. Trauma bonds are formed when your organism registers that you are in danger.
According to “The Betrayal Bond,” a book written by Patrick Carnes, who developed this concept, “trauma bonds are the dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation. Trauma bonds occur when we are bonding to the very person who is the source of danger, fear, and exploitation.” They involve seduction, betrayal, and high intensity.
They also involve a seemingly endless sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Carnes wrote, “This type of bonding does not facilitate recovery and resilience but rather undermines those very qualities within us.”
Throughout the relationship, your organism assessed the threat and continuously mobilized energy for you to fight or flee. Yet the trauma in trauma bonding creates a cyclical, repetitive cycle that contains your ability to protect yourself, trust yourself, feel your body’s physiological reactions or evolve out of your current state, even when your partner is gone.
Instead of fighting or fleeing, you remain frozen and clinging with an “insane level of loyalty, to an impossible, unresolvable, toxic, overwhelming, or cosmically doomed bond.” A person chained to this type of bond “disbelieves the obvious and accepts the impossible.”
The following are some signs of trauma bonding, which I’ve adapted from Carnes:
- When you continue to be fixated on people who hurt you and who are no longer in your life.
- When you crave contact with someone who has hurt you and who you know will cause you more pain.
- When you continue to revolve around people who you know are taking advantage of you or exploiting you.
- When you are committed to remaining loyal to someone who has betrayed you, even though their actions indicate few signs of change.
- When you are desperate to be understood, validated, or needed by those who have indicated they do not care about you.
- When you go to great lengths to continue to help, caretake, or consider people who have been destructive to you.
These types of relationships capitalize on old wounds and previous traumas.
As a bigger and separate topic, there are a lot of reasons for why we may be vulnerable to trauma bonding, to begin with, including a deep desire to heal a prior hurt. We do this by subconsciously recreating the prior situation, down to the very exploitative, dangerous, or shameful elements that existed in the prior trauma. Down to the type of toxic, emotionally unavailable, or developmentally stunted person in the prior situation.
The reasons why we get into these types of bonds, the reasons we stay, and the reasons why we can’t let them go are interrelated, and at least one thing remains the same: our body stores these memories physiologically, without a time or date stamp. The memories can make us feel like we are in an endless cycle of trauma and pain, with or without the relationship.
Trauma is a big concept, that lives on much developing academic ground. I’m no expert, and what I’m saying is informed by the work of trauma researchers Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, and Patrick Carnes, but this is simply my interpretation.
Viewing your seemingly irrational reactions to heartbreak through a trauma-informed lens will reduce some part of the shame that comes with continuing to live in a body that is suspended in a hyper-aroused and frenetic state long after we are told that we should be over a relationship or situation.
There are different kinds of trauma. Some are the types of trauma we are typically aware of —responses to natural disasters, war, abuse, genocide, and other atrocities. We associate those traumas with the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has helped to explain how victims survive in dire circumstances, including why the victims end up turning against themselves and becoming loyal to the abuser, as in the case of Stockholm Syndrome.
Understanding trauma begins when you remove judgment from the equation about the degree of atrocity that must exist in order to define trauma as trauma. There are other aspects of trauma, such as those that involve the body’s response to betrayal, childhood experiences, and interpersonal relationship trauma. A traumatic reaction is a completely subjective thing. There are more possible situations/origins of trauma than there are people.
Trauma lives inside the body as a physiological state. It will be easier to become aware of the manifestation of this state and to give it credibility if you realize that trauma can occur in the absence of abusers, victimizers, and overtly dire situations. You can have a traumatic reaction to anything or anyone that your body perceives as a threat, including a break in attachment with even the most well-meaning, non-intentionally insidious, but emotionally empty people.
Peter Levine has defined trauma as “Any experience which stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies.” It is difficult to access coping mechanisms while in this overwhelmed state. This reaction can become more intense when the relational trauma occurs for long periods of time, with intermittent reinforcement, and when it is layered on top of relational trauma that occurred in childhood.
The stunned shock of anything that your body perceives as a threat, including a betrayal or a breakup, can live inside of us as a physiological state, even when we are not in present danger — when we are out of the breakup, moved out, and presumably moved on. Our bodies are engaged in a survival response even when out of the danger — which manifests itself as a freeze state that makes all the negative emotions you felt while in the relationship freeze within you as well.
What is this? Why does this happen?
The Freeze State.
It happens as a result of a completely natural human reaction to a potentially threatening situation. Peter Levine has explained how trauma develops in his book, “Waking the Tiger.” When faced with perceived danger or challenge, we become energetically aroused, mobilized, and poised to pounce, respond, and defend. This is the reason why weaklings are able to lift cars in order to rescue children. Our bodies were built to generate tremendous energy and appropriately constrict it so that it can be released. So we can fight or flee from threats for our very survival. When the energy is released, there is a tremendous sense of relief and somatic calm. There is no trauma. The situation makes sense to us because we witnessed our bodies working with us to resolve a threat.
So what happens to this tremendous, do-or-die energy isn’t released? When we feel we cannot fight or flee, as in the case of a trauma bond, there isn’t a discharge of this energy.
Instead, we hard stop freeze. Unlike other animals, our more highly evolved neocortex prevents an instinctual response of releasing this energy anyway, when the freeze state ends. Without the release, our body constricts this incredible bundle of energy and contains it in our nervous system. We are suspended in a highly mobilized emergency alert state, hypervigilant, and brimming with energy that our body now has to shift around, negotiate, and safety-valve slowly expel through adaptations that make us feel like we are experiencing an anxiety reaction. This too, is our body working for us, to prevent a nervous system meltdown.
This is trauma.
An example of this is when you brace yourself during the impact of a car accident and later find yourself completely motionless, your knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel, adrenaline coursing through you, heart rate is racing, breathing heavily, with almost no memory of the event.
Why won’t our “smarter” brain allow us to discharge this energy during the freeze state? Again, your body is trying its best to protect you. When that tremendous force of arousal energy is first triggered, it makes us feel up to the task, positive, and intensely alive. When the release is thwarted and is instead subsumed inwardly, we associate the energy with intensely negative emotions.
All those feelings and all the energy that you might have expelled during the relationship in a fight or flight response — all the anger, the shame, and the fear — now reside within you and may feel like are directed TOWARD you.
Our “smarter” brain attempts to protect us by negotiating these emotions within our circuitry because it believes that this work will protect us from experience sheer terror of the release. We fear releasing them because the energy itself is so strongly associated with danger, betrayal, and fear. You are now the home of negative energy that was never meant to be yours.
What does this have to do with your inability to let go of a toxic relationship?
Why does all of this slow you down when it comes to commonplace advice like “stop fixating, face the fear of moving on, and focus on yourself?”
Releasing A Trauma Bond
The reason it feels like you can’t “break” a traumatic bond is because you are still suffering from your body’s adaptations to all of this chaotic, negative energy that is now stored inside. These very adaptations cause you to constantly review what happened, to fixate, to refrain from feeling fear and grief, and to obsess about the relationship.
The nervous system experiences trauma as a body feeling. In other words, your hyper-alert state lives on as symptoms that can be perceived as anxiety: increased heart rate, tension, agitation, flashbacks, shudders, muscle soreness, and racing thoughts.
All of this anxiety can feel unfair. We know it’s normal to feel grief over the loss of a relationship, but the hope is that we will feel some sense of relief once we get the courage to let go of someone we loved, but who we know is toxic, narcissistic, or emotionally unavailable. Hang on. Your body is communicating to you that internally, you still feel as if you are in danger. Because this anxiety state is so closely associated with the trauma bond, this may feel like a craving for your ex and the trauma bond, when it is in fact, a frantic message to stay away.
When exposed to personal trauma, the part of the brain that processes information, puts things into context, and communicates to you in narrative form shuts down. You are suspended in emergency activation mode, but without an ability to cope with the stress.
This is why no contact is so important. When exposed to anything that reminds you of your former partner, your nervous system triggers energy to communicate the presence of a threat but prevents you from consciously putting that threat into the context of what is occurring here and now. In this state, it can feel hard to learn new things or assimilate information.
This is why it can feel like such a gut punch to see your ex or hear about his or her life, even after time has passed and you are sure “you got this.” It can leave you feeling helpless and hopeless.
Trauma bonds don’t “heal with time” because trauma doesn’t have a sense of time. Don’t expect to never feel triggered. Feeling triggered does not mean that you are “back to square one” when it comes to processing the breakup. It means that you are experiencing traumatic anxiety, which once again makes you feel like you are frozen and immobilized. This can lead you to feel depressed even though the current stressor is no longer around. Don’t lose hope. Even the smallest bit of awareness of what is actually occurring will help you to unfreeze out of this state, and this will get more automatic and manageable the more you increase this awareness.
Because you are not able to put your physiological distress into a time and place context, you are not able to consciously recognize that the traumatic event happened in the past. This causes confusion between past trauma and current stressors. Your body, behind the scenes, may be experiencing today’s stressful day as a flashback to the past, as if the trauma has returned.
Life goes on after a trauma bond. Other people and situations will stress you out and trigger anxious feelings that you will subconsciously associate with the trauma bond. This is why stressful days and subsequent disappointments make you feel like you are missing the trauma bond more intensely.
Trauma is like a trance. It makes you less aware of your current state, your bodily sensations, and your feelings. When you start to feel more safe, grounded, and present, you will slowly become more aware of when these flashbacks occur. You will feel less entranced and more able to untangle your prior distress from what is currently happening in your life.
• Trauma repetition review.
After an animal goes into fight, flight, or freeze and releases all the energy its nervous system conjured to get out of a dangerous situation, the animal goes into a review state. The point of this is to figure out what happened and to learn from the experience. Trauma bonded humans also go into this state, except the review occurs in a highly aroused and anxious state, because the energy from the experience has not been released.
This is why it is so difficult to stop fixating on what occurred, why you are experiencing obsessive thoughts, replaying old scripts, and why you feel abandoned and rejected long after a traumatic break has occurred. You are processing the trauma bond while you are still in a stressed and hyperaroused state.
This is why talking about trauma, rehashing the situation with your friends, and recycling anger doesn’t make you feel better and only further retraumatizes you. It may feel like you lost something important because you can’t let go of compulsively thinking about the trauma bond. This repetitive rehashing is healthy and normal, but only when conducted when you are out of an anxiety state and feeling grounded, safe, and present.
The antidote to compulsive rehashing is to remember that trauma lives inside the body, as a physiological state. Once activated, it shuts down your ability to process information. There’s nothing wrong with trying to figure out what happened, but know that doing so in this triggered state may make you feel like you need to return to the trauma bond.
Hypervigilance is the inevitable result of all of this hyperarousal. In trying to make sense of how you are feeling, your body actively searches for the source of the threat, even when one cannot be found. This drive can feel like a fixation to scan for the source, even though what you may just be reacting to is your own internal arousal. This gets repetitive and compulsive.
Your body remembers the trauma bond. It remembers how it felt and who was around. Even out of the relationship, a trauma bonded person may still feel threatened by either a memory of the past when dealing with a current stressor. Your brain scans for a source of the threat. Your brain lands on the emotionally charged memory and image of someone associated with the trauma bond. You may feel plagued by images of your ex-partner, but this is only because your body remembers this person as a source of threat, not because you need to run back to this person.
All of these symptoms occur because your nervous system is suspended in a hyper-aroused state, searching for new danger, and attempting to protect you. The key to releasing the trauma bond is to remind yourself, carefully, with compassion, and with consistency that you are no longer in danger and that you are now safe.
– This, first and foremost, has to be true. If you are still in any way involved in a trauma bond, then you are not safe. It may feel like you’ve hacked it and you are over it and you are ready for contact or another round, but your physiological systems will likely tell you otherwise.
– When you start to feel triggered, remind yourself of where you are in time and space. You may be experiencing a physiological memory of the past that makes you feel as if you are re-experiencing the trauma. Trauma robs you of your ability to stay in the present. It drops you in a trance and prevents you from recognizing what you are feeling — both emotionally and physiologically. There are many ways of grounding, including yoga, breath work, meditation, journaling, spending time in nature, among so many others. Once you get committed to healing, you will seek and find endless sources of information and relief in these. The key is to begin. Yoga will not release your trauma bond. Going for a hike will not make flashbacks and obsessive thoughts go away. These things may, however, bring you more awareness to your sensations and feelings, which will help you stay in the present when you feel yourself becoming taken over in a trauma bonded trance.
– Become emotionally available to yourself. The way to release a trauma bond is to very slowly and compassionately separate the amount of fear, that you may not even know you feel, about your negative emotions from the negative emotions themselves. These negative emotions are stored inside of you because your body internalized them, instead of using the energy of these emotions to flee or fight. They are not yours. These emotions are not your anger or your shame. You are safe now. You no longer need them. But you need a really safe base in yourself, your enviornment, and others in order to slowly release these. Be kind to yourself. It’s not easy to let go.
– A symptom of being trauma bonded is an intense desire to inform the person who hurt you about your healing. Don’t do that. It will only entrench you further. Your stored negative energy is not your own, but it’s not your ex’s either. It may feel like you have to “place” it somewhere, but this will not get rid of it, and you will only re-traumatize yourself. You can’t put it somewhere else. You can replace it with the knowledge this energy is no longer necessary to protect you, because you are safe now.
Trauma-bonded people are usually the foremost experts on their exes. In order to survive, they can discern mood changes from small facial movements, sideways grunts, or the way a person is standing. Start becoming this aware of yourself.
Start noticing what triggers you, when you are feeling hyper-vigilant, when you are reviewing or processing the relationship in a stressed out state. Start noticing when your flashbacks occur. You may find that they are actually occurring in response to current life stressors.
In becoming aware of this, you may find that there are other toxic people and situations in your current life that you can let go of in order to feel more safe. When other toxic bonds fall away, you may feel more ready to be yourself. When you feel more ready to be yourself, you may become even less ashamed and more emotionally aware. You can start to recognize which thoughts and emotions aren’t yours.
When you separate these, you will feel even more safe. Becoming more self-aware is work with a huge payoff, and you’re already so good doing it with everyone but yourself.
When you separate the past from the present, you will start to have more fun in the present. You will solve the present problems better. You will start to feel more like yourself again. You are safe now, and soon…
You will be free.
What an incredible post. Irena will be answering all of your comments/questions below. I’ll pop in too 🙂