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Turning Trauma Responses Into Strength

In abusive relationships, it’s very common for victims of abuse to live in a state of fight or flight. While it may not be fully elevated at all times, individuals in this position have been conditioned to remain fearful and unsure of what is going to come next.

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You’re driving down the highway on your way home from work when suddenly, out of nowhere, you hear a loud screeching and see a car barreling towards you from two lanes over. Thoughts begin racing through your head but you feel frozen, unsure what to do. Right before they slam into the side of your car, you check your rearview mirror and, seeing no one behind you, you slam on your brakes with just enough time for the car to get in front of you. The threat has passed but you feel yourself breathing rapidly, your heart is about to pound out of your chest and your hands are trembling. You pull off at the next exit to give yourself time to calm down so you can safely finish your drive home. You experienced a trauma response.

Fight or Flight

Fight or flight is a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of mental fear, physical fear, and uncertainty on how to best respond. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands which release a large amount of adrenaline – resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate – often accompanied by foggy thoughts and trembling. Following the elimination of threat, the fight or flight reaction takes anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.

Trauma Response in Domestic Violence

In abusive relationships, it’s very common for victims of abuse to live in a state of fight or flight. While it may not be fully elevated at all times, individuals in this position have been conditioned to remain fearful and unsure of what is going to come next. Due to living in a state of threat, it’s often not possible for victims of abuse to work through their emotions, feelings, and events until they have left the abusive situation/ relationship. This can make leaving even more difficult. 

After leaving an abusive relationship, the emotional and mental effects are extremely likely to linger. Again, due to being in a state of fight or flight, someone is not able to process emotions until the direct threat is eliminated. According to Love is Respect, after leaving an abusive relationship, victims are likely to experience any of the following:

  • Depression,
  • Guilt,
  • Anger,
  • PTSD,
  • Anxiety,
  • Trouble sleeping,
  • Being easily frightened,
  • Avoidance of triggers.

Turn Trauma Response Into Strength

While there isn’t a definitive healing process that works for everyone, it can be reassuring to know that many people have similar emotional experiences after leaving abusive relationships. Due to the conflicting feelings that are likely to follow leaving, it’s extremely important to seek out support in the form of therapy, support groups, and self-help activities. The first few months will not be easy but in the long run, you are saving yourself. It’s important to turn these responses to trauma into strengths. 

You’ve Been Through A Lot

For starters, your body is having such an extreme response because of all that you’ve been through. That alone should be enough to show you your worth and allow you to realize how strong you are to leave a situation that could cause such a strong physiological and subconscious response. Your body is proving to you that anyone who told you’re crazy, or that it’s “not that bad” was wrong. The body doesn’t have strong responses unless provoked.

It’s Okay to Grieve

Secondly, use these struggles as a time to heal and refind yourself. It’s okay to grieve. It’s natural to feel conflicted and to question if you’re making the right decision, but it’s important to remember that you’ve been conditioned to second guess yourself. When you’re questioning your decisions, stand firm in them, each time you stop those doubting thoughts in your head you will recondition your brain to trust your intuition.

Reconnect with Your Previous Life

Lastly, turn these responses into strengths by reconnecting with your life before your relationship. Did you enjoy coloring? Spending time with friends? Going out to eat? You might feel emotionally closed off, depressed, anxious, or apprehensive, that is okay. Turn that into a strength. Prove to yourself that you can return to normalcy. You can do this by setting a goal with yourself. Start out small, but don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It can help to ask yourself “what’s the worst that could happen?” and only use logical responses in determining the risk. Don’t let your fear outweigh the positives. You’re going to want to talk yourself out of it, but trust in yourself and recreate the amazing life you deserve. 

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