The short answer is, going by the NHS definition, no, PTSD is not caused by divorce.
However, trauma is trauma and the mental scars of a marriage or relationship breakdown can be far-reaching and often present themselves as symptoms associated with PTSD.
What is PTSD?
Coined in World War I, shell shock was used to describe the trauma many soldiers were afflicted with during the war. Today, it is referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
Officially recognised as a mental health condition in 1980, we now know that you do need to go to war to experience PTSD related symptoms and that trauma can impact on anyone living in everyday life.
According to the NHS, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a very stressful, frightening or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience.”
PTSD symptoms manifest themselves into three main categories:
- Re-experiencing, flashbacks, nightmares and physical sensations (pain, sweating, feeling sick).
- Avoidance and emotional numbing, avoiding certain places or people, distraction, becoming isolated and withdrawn.
- Hyperarousal (feeling on edge), extreme anxiety, difficulty to relax, irritability, angry outbursts and insomnia.
Although this list is by no means exhaustive as people’s experience of PTSD varies widely.
PTSD and divorce
People’s experiences are so different, and we deal with trauma so differently.
I recall one of our clients saying, “Once you go through a high conflict divorce you are never the same,” but can divorce or separation cause PTSD?
Referring to the NHS, their website states: “PTSD is not usually related to situations that are simply upsetting, such as divorce, job loss or failing exams.”
The ending of a relationship may not meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, however, the effects can certainly be just as devastating.
Our experience has shown us that when someone is going through a protracted or acrimonious divorce, it can lead to debilitating symptoms of anxiety which can be found at the roots of PTSD.
Negative thinking, exaggerated self-blame (or blaming others), isolation, paranoia, destructive behaviour and insomnia can all manifest in someone as they process their divorce.
Not everyone who goes through a divorce will develop symptoms similar to PTSD, but some risk factors may make people more susceptible including:
- Underlying mental health conditions
- History of previous trauma
- Stress in other areas of life
- Social isolation and a lack of support
Add in an abusive relationship be it physical, emotional and/or financial and a highly contested and lengthy divorce and you must consider that divorce, for some, may cause PTSD and display symptoms that are similar to those who have survived a war, natural disasters or other life-threatening events.
What can you do about it?
- Accepting that you are struggling is the bravest first step.
- Seek out support. Speak to your doctor, family and friends. Isolation compounds anxiety and the effects of trauma.
- Look at tools including mediation, mindfulness and exercise. We have a range of tips and advice on this blog.
- Seek professional counselling. CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can help to change negative thought processes.
- Be realistic and patient. Recovering from a traumatic experience takes time. Give yourself space and the kindness you need.
Sources of support
If you are struggling with anxiety, post-divorce trauma or PTSD, the Mind website has a useful PTSD section on its website covering information, advice and signposts to professional support services. Please do seek support.