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Can codependency and PTSD be caused by childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma can create challenges far into the future for the affected individual. Childhood trauma can lead to substance abuse, mental illness, and a number of unhealthy behaviors. But can trauma cause codependency? Studies show that it can, and in this article we will take a look at codependent relationships vs. healthy relationships, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and its effects.

What are codependent relationships?

A codependent relationship is one in which one partner (the codependent partner) provides for their partner's needs while ignoring their own. A codependent person may do this in a romantic relationship as well as in other relationships. This behavior is a common outcome in cases of childhood trauma.

Childhood Trauma and Its Effects in Adulthood

Trauma is an intense emotional response to events that are shocking, terrifying, or hurtful. Examples of trauma can include things like witnessing a death, experiencing a natural disaster or war zone, and childhood abuse, including physical abuse or sexual abuse.

When a child experiences trauma, they are often left feeling powerless or unworthy. They can lose their faith in others and even in themselves. They may continue to feel unsafe even after the event is long past. They can develop a tendency toward trauma bonding, an inability to set healthy boundaries, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Codependence, Trauma, and Substance Use Disorders

Codependency was first used by psychologists in the 1940s to describe those who were living with people who experienced substance abuse. Over time, this concept expanded and has been called by some experts "relationship addiction." People who develop healthy relationships will set boundaries for themselves and make sure they are taking care of their own needs.

Childhood trauma and codependency are strongly linked. Those who are prone to codependent relationships will often develop what's called trauma bonding--an attachment to an abuser that keeps them in an abusive relationship. In this type of relationship, the codependent person may hide abuse from family members and continue to make excuses for the abusive behavior.

Effects of Trauma and Co-Dependency

Unfortunately, when a person experiences trauma in their childhood, they have a higher risk for codependent behavior and low self-esteem, which puts them at risk for toxic relationships and other types of dysfunctional relationships.

Examples of Codependent Relationships

Codependent relationships are ones in which one partner has poor boundaries and therefore ends up shouldering the emotional load for the other. This can be simply an unhealthy relationship in which they ignore their own needs and give all of their energy to their partner, or it can be a case of trauma bonds, in which they defend and stick to a relationship in which there is physical or emotional abuse.

If you are currently in an abusive relationship and need help, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or by texting "START" to 88788 for resources and crisis assistance. 

The Trauma-Bonded Codependent

Someone who is codependent often has other mental health issues, such as anxiety disorder, because they become stressed and burned out from taking care of their partner. Their deep-seated need to care for others often leaves them destructively dependent on the person relying on their emotional support.

They may suffer anything from poor communication to overt abuse from their partner. They may overreact emotionally in other aspects of their lives because of the pressure that they're under.

Symptoms of PTSD Caused by Childhood Trauma

Another common factor in childhood trauma is the development of PTSD. This disorder is caused by hyperarousal due to feelings of danger or lack of safety in childhood. It can lead to psychological as well as physical health problems.

PTSD Symptoms

PTSD can look different in different individuals. How they present can depend on the type of trauma, the intensity and length of time the trauma occurred, and the personality traits of the individual. Some symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Hyperarousal (increased fight or flight response)
  • Mental or physical distress from trauma-related cues
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Poor sleep
  • Mood dysregulation

Strategies For Healing From Codependency and Other Effects of Trauma

Treatment is available for people who have experienced trauma, leading to the processing of past trauma, healthier relationships, and improved mental health. While one of the most effective treatments for trauma and codependency is psychotherapy, there are some strategies you can use to heal in addition to attending therapy sessions.

Self-Care and Self-Nurturing

Learning to care for yourself is an important part of breaking free from the traumatic event and the codependent behaviors it fosters. Trauma bonding means that you are never the priority, but with the help of a mental health therapist, you can learn to put your emotional health at the forefront. When you can do this and learn to set boundaries for yourself, it will be easier to avoid unhealthy relationships and build healthy adult relationships.

The Importance of Building Healthy Support Networks

Childhood trauma results in a lack of trust for many. Learning to create healthy relationships encourages you to break free from codependent behaviors and trauma bonds by modeling your relationships on those of securely bonded friends and family.

Therapy for Codependency and PTSD

When you seek relief through professional treatment, you can learn to process intrusive memories through evidence-based therapy. Cognitive behavior therapy, or EMDR, can help you move past traumatic events and replace unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior with healthy alternatives. You can also gain a stronger sense of self-worth, learn coping mechanisms to deal with compulsive behavior and stress and improve your overall mental health.

Dealing With The Effects of Childhood Traumatic Experience

There can be lasting consequences to emotional trauma, but there is no need to feel ashamed or unworthy because you experienced it. It's not your fault. And you can learn to attend to your emotional needs, avoid a codependent relationship, and build healthy intimate relationships with others if you seek professional help. Healing is possible if you can just take that first step.

If you suspect that trauma is impacting your ability to have a healthy relationship, therapy may be able to help. Williamsburg Therapy Group, located in South Austin, staffs the city’s best therapists, each at the doctoral-level with unparalleled levels of expertise in trauma and relationships. Give us a call or book a therapy appointment in Austin online today!

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