If you or someone you love has developed a trauma bond, you know that breaking free is much easier said than done. Trauma bonds are powerful and insidious, keeping you attached to someone who is toxic to your wellbeing, despite knowing that the relationship isn’t good for you. These bonds are difficult to break for the same reason that it’s hard for an alcoholic to stop drinking: withdrawal symptoms. When you try to walk away from a toxic relationship, you can experience intense trauma bond withdrawal symptoms that make you feel desperate to get back into contact with the person you’re trying to detach from.
As a therapist and breakup recovery expert, I’ve helped many people wriggle free from the chains of toxic relationships. I know that trauma bond withdrawal symptoms go beyond the pain of heartbreak; they can be so intense that you literally feel like you can’t survive without your Ex. Fortunately, by understanding that these feelings are not reality, building your self-compassion, and giving yourself the things you need to cope with the pain of the detachment process, you can break free from unhealthy relationships and begin to heal.
What Is a Trauma Bond?
Trauma bonds are a powerful, unhealthy attachment to an individual who has caused us significant emotional pain. Trauma bonding is similar to Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon that occurs when someone forms an intense emotional connection with an abuser. But trauma bonds don’t just happen in the context of outright abuse; they can also happen in relationships in which both partners are contributing unhealthy ingredients to the mix that are damaging to them both.
When you’ve formed a trauma bond with someone, it becomes more difficult to end the relationship, even though it’s hurting you. The intense, passionate highs mixed with the devastating lows of a toxic relationship are addictive. These ups and downs create something called intermittent reinforcement, which means you can never be sure when you will be hurt by your partner or when you will be rewarded with their love and affection. It’s the same process that makes gambling more addictive than receiving a reliable paycheck, and it can keep you stuck in a toxic relationship for a very long time.
Trauma Bond Withdrawal Symptoms
When you try to break free from a trauma bond, you will experience withdrawal symptoms that make leaving feel impossible, even more so than ending a healthy relationship with a fundamentally loving partner.
Here are a few of the trauma bond withdrawal symptoms you may experience:
- Powerful Cravings: You may experience overwhelming cravings to reconnect with your Ex, seeking the “highs” of affection you once received. Even if you don’t get back together, you may feel the need to stay friends with your Ex, continue engaging in fights with them, or to have sex with your Ex.
- Anxiety and Depression: Feelings of anxiety, depression, and despair can be intense as you grapple with the loss of the unhealthy relationship.
- Damaged Self-Esteem: Anytime we experience a breakup, our self-esteem takes a hit. But this is especially true in toxic-relationship breakups, especially if you lost trust and respect for yourself by tolerating mistreatment from your Ex. Working with a good therapist can help you pick up the pieces, rebuild your self-esteem, and repair your trust in yourself to avoid unhealthy relationships in the future.
- Confusion and Uncertainty: You might feel confused about your own feelings when you’re withdrawing from a trauma bond, struggling to reconcile the love you felt for your Ex with the bad treatment you endured.
- Physical Symptoms: You may experience physical trauma bond withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, lack of appetite, or sleep disturbances.
- Desire for Isolation: You might want to isolate yourself from friends and family, feeling ashamed of your past actions or fearing judgment.
How to Cope with Trauma Bond Withdrawal Symptoms
Learning how to tolerate and manage trauma bond withdrawal symptoms for long enough for them to subside is a critical step towards healing and liberation after a toxic relationship. Here are some strategies to help you navigate this challenging process:
- Seek Professional Help: Consulting a therapist or counselor who specializes in breakup recovery and healing from toxic relationships is very important if you are breaking free from a trauma bond. They can help you process your emotions, develop coping strategies, and regain control over your life.
- Build a Support Network: Resist the urge to isolate. Surround yourself with a strong support system of friends and family who understand your situation and can offer emotional support.
- Self-Care: Prioritize emotional self-care, including exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep. These habits can help give you relief from physical withdrawal symptoms and lift your mood.
- Journaling: Keeping a journal can give you a place to release overwhelming emotions, make sense of what happened and how it’s affecting you, and document your thoughts and emotions so that you can track your recovery.
- Mindfulness and Meditation: Using mindfulness and meditation practices can help you stay present and grounded after a toxic relationship ends. It’s common for anyone going through a breakup to feel like they can’t stop thinking about their Ex, and this is even more true after a toxic relationship. Mindfulness practices help you to focus on the present moment and stop ruminating about things that happened in the past.
- Go No-Contact: If you are trying to break a trauma bond, the best strategy is to have no further contact with your Ex if that’s possible for you. If you have children with your Ex, you will need to maintain some communication. But if you don’t have kids together and you are able to stop engaging with your Ex entirely, that will help you heal.
- Educate Yourself: Learn about trauma bonds and the dynamics of toxic relationships. Understanding these concepts can empower you to ride out the trauma bond withdrawal symptoms without returning to your Ex for temporary relief… and ultimately more pain.
- Set Boundaries: Establish healthy boundaries with others to protect yourself from further emotional harm. Aside from not contacting your Ex, you may need to ask them not to contact you, block them, unfollow or mute them on social media, and even distance yourself from mutual friends if necessary. Prioritizing your own wellbeing will help you rebuild your self-esteem and self trust as you recover.
- Focus on Self-Compassion: Practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness can help you heal from a toxic relationship. Understand that you formed a trauma bond because of natural psychological factors that we are all vulnerable to, and not because of any personal flaw on your part.
- Remember, This Will Pass: The pain of withdrawing from a trauma bond does not last forever. As you process the painful feelings, you will gradually begin to feel better, until eventually you no longer have strong feelings about your Ex one way or another. Keeping this in mind can help you withstand the withdrawal symptoms for long enough to let the relationship go and make space for healthier relationships in your life.
How to Break a Trauma Bond with a Narcissist
If you are trying to break free from a trauma bond with a narcissist, then it will be especially important for you to maintain healthy boundaries and get professional support. Relationships with narcissists can be particularly hard to leave and you may feel very confused about things that happened in the relationship. A good therapist can help you validate your own experiences, gain clarity, process complex feelings, and find strategies to avoid narcissistic relationships in the future.
Support for Trauma Bond Withdrawal
I hope this article helped you recognize trauma bond withdrawal symptoms, and gave you some ideas about how to manage these feelings and recover. I know it can feel overwhelming, but it is possible for you to leave a toxic relationship and to heal. Not only will you feel better once you get time and space from the relationship, but you will gain valuable personal growth that will help you create healthier relationships in the future, and avoid those that chip away at your dignity and wellbeing.
If you would like support along your journey from a clinician on my team who is knowledgeable about trauma bonding and the process of recovering after toxic relationships, we’re here to help. I encourage you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more advice on releasing your attachment, healing your heart, and moving forward, see my “Healing After Heartbreak” collection of articles and podcasts. It’s all there for you.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.