PTSD After Divorce: Stories of Strength and Healing

A separation or divorce is never easy, but some women struggle more than others. It can even be a traumatic experience, triggering depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. The most important way to get through this, to heal, and to learn to enjoy life again is to get a professional diagnosis and treatment. Additionally, it helps to hear about the experiences of others, those who have gotten to the other side of divorce and trauma, stronger and more resilient.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that is often associated with combat and veterans. While this group of men and women has higher rates of PTSD, anyone can develop it after traumatic experiences. In fact, women are more likely to have PTSD than men, with rates as high as ten percent in women and only four percent in men.

Trauma isn’t always a result of violence, and it isn’t always something obvious or easy to see. Women may find the experience of divorce traumatic, especially if they were abused or mistreated repeatedly. If you are struggling after a divorce or separation and can’t seem to cope, consider seeing a mental health professional for an evaluation and effective, trauma-focused treatment.

Do I Have PTSD?

Every individual has their own unique response to difficult situations. What may not seem traumatic for one person could be devastating to you. Don’t assume that divorce, something that so many people go through, can’t possibly be traumatic. It can have lasting effects on your mental health. Some of the signs of PTSD include:

  • You keep reliving painful events and memories from your relationship or separation. These are flashbacks or nightmares that are distressing but that you cannot control.
  • You take great pains to avoid anything that reminds you of your ex or past relationship.
  • It’s difficult to relax or not be afraid. You are jumpy and easily startled, always on high alert.
  • You have a lot of negative thoughts and feelings, such as shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, and anger, and you’re struggling to find any joy in your life.

When these kinds of symptoms persist for a month or more and are debilitating, you may be diagnosed with PTSD. Consider Mary’s story from a difficult period after her divorce:

“My divorce after 18 years of marriage was necessary, but it wasn’t easy or amicable. My ex fought me every step of the way. I even had to get a PPO to stay safe. He kept showing up at my new apartment at all hours of the night, and I was scared.

The stress of the months-long process took a toll on me. I couldn’t sleep at night. I kept having nightmares that he was breaking in to hurt me. A friend wanted me to open up and talk about the experience, but I just couldn’t so I cut her out of my life. I even had to force myself to keep in touch with my adult children. It was all just so painful, and I wanted to hide inside all the time.

Ultimately, I decided to talk to my doctor about everything. He suggested I might have PTSD, which shocked me. I opted for trauma-focused treatment and discovered I truly had been traumatized by my ex. It took a couple of months of hard work, but I am coping again, and my children and friends are back in my life and supporting me.”

Why Women Are More Likely to Have PTSD

Men actually experience more trauma than women. About 50 percent of women experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes. For men this statistic is closer to 60 percent. So why do women struggle more frequently with PTSD? There are several possibilities backed by research:

  • Type of trauma. Women have higher rates of certain types of trauma, like sexual abuse or assault, that carry higher risks of PTSD.
  • Gender roles. Researchers have found that women are at a greater risk for PTSD because they are often forced into a less powerful, more submissive social role.
  • Social support. Women respond especially well to using social support and caring for others as a healthy coping strategy. If they don’t have a good social network, they may struggle more with trauma, as compared to men.

Belinda experienced domestic abuse before finally getting a divorce. She then struggled with PTSD:

“My husband wasn’t abusive at first. But he started drinking more, about two years after we got married. Work became really stressful for him, and he took it out in two ways: getting drunk and getting angry with me.

I felt like I was walking on eggshells. Initially, he wasn’t physically abusive, but it escalated. It took another year of this before I got up the courage to call my parents and ask for help. They took me home with them and helped me initiate divorce proceedings.

The separation was a relief on the one hand, but I got depressed. I felt like I had failed at marriage. I couldn’t snap out of this funk, and I kept jumping any time there was the slightest noise in the house. My parents encouraged me to get my own place, but I was too scared to leave them.

They got me into a treatment facility, and I think I was in denial at first. I thought I was there for depression, but my therapist helped me see that I was really struggling with the trauma of the abuse. The one-on-one sessions and the work I did with other women in the facility got me to a point where I realized I didn’t have to be afraid. I was able to get a new place for myself, and I cope with the occasional sense of fear with exercise and ongoing outpatient therapy.”

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Treatment for PTSD is Effective

Whether you realize that you have been through trauma, or you simply feel as if you aren’t coping or functioning normally after a divorce, treatment can help. An evaluation and diagnosis will clarify your challenges and how to proceed. A safe treatment environment with a focus on trauma can change your life. It did for Michelle:

“By most standards, my divorce was smooth. It was sad, of course, and upsetting, but my husband was never abusive. He lost his temper sometimes, and we fought, but once it was all over and I couldn’t focus on anything or get these intrusive memories of our bad times out of my head, I thought I was seriously overreacting.

I ended up going to treatment because I wasn’t coping well and was on the verge of getting fired for missing so much work. Because of my symptoms I got a diagnosis of PTSD. Digging deeper with my therapist, I learned that a period of sexual abuse from my childhood had made me more susceptible to PTSD now.

Treatment for PTSD was eye-opening and life-saving. I worked through the trauma of my past and learned how it affected everything I do today, how I relate to others, and how I think about myself and the world. I learned important strategies for coping in healthy ways. I now take advantage of support groups for childhood abuse and am in a much better place.”

PTSD is a serious mental illness, and contrary to what many people assume, it is not limited to men, to combat, or to violence. Anyone can respond to a difficult situation in a way that includes traumatization. If your relationship or separation triggered a traumatic reaction, it does not mean you are weak. It means you have been through something challenging and that you need better coping skills. This is what treatment can do. It can help you get your life back after divorce and trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Treatment at Helix Treatment Centers

Helix Treatment Center’s innovative gender-specific mental health treatment program is designed to help women gain the life skills and strength needed to manage their symptoms and learn to better cope with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders in a supportive environment that caters to their psychological, physiological, and emotional needs. We offer a tranquil space to restore emotional and behavioral health and stability in a safe, comfortable environment at our six-bed residence nestled in the beautiful Mt. Helix region of San Diego.

Contact us today to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.