The Trauma is real.
When I finally harnessed the courage to leave my abusive marriage of 18 years, I was an absolute heap of fear and anxiety cloaked in a heavy fog of depression and shock. I was completely traumatized.
Suffering and experiencing the impact of long-term trauma and chronic stress from prolonged exposure to a narcissistic abuser has lingering effects. Abuse is abuse. Emotional, psychological, and/or physical abuse all impact the body, our minds, our thinking, and chips away at the core of who we are. Each type of abuse impacts the other and creates an unhealthy cycle in our brains and in our bodies.
The trauma resides in our bodies. It resides in our nervous system. Pushing feelings down, ignoring our emotions, denying ourselves and numbing what is true, while continuing to beat ourselves up with punishing and poisoned thoughts about ourselves becomes a type of habit. A very unhealthy habit.
Playing and replaying the cruel voice of the narcissistic abuser in our hearts and our minds, distorting our own wants and needs, while layering blame, self-judgment, and endless self-criticism onto ourselves perpetuates and continues this unhealthy cycle.
This plunges us into feelings of hopelessness and repetitive, negative thinking from a narrow, clouded perspective that keeps us from seeing life as it is.
This murky perspective seems like it is real. But is it our truth? Are we perceiving the truth? We have been so conditioned with threats, manipulations, lies, insults, and layers and layers of abuse that we start to take on these words as if they are real. We may begin to hold ourselves in our own prison even after we are no longer with the narcissistic abuser.
In the beginning, even almost immediately after separating from the abusive narcissist, when distance has been established from the daily manipulations, there can be a noticeable difference in how we are feeling on the inside. Our body knows that something has changed and may begin to send us some quiet signals.
It may be the first time in many years, that a victim can listen to and notice the effects of the chronic anxiety and daily stressors that have layered on after years of hyper-vigilance and abuse with a narcissistic abuser. This attention to how our body and minds are feeling is a way to wake us up from the fog that has been enveloping us.
Just creating that space between ourselves and the toxic other supports us in beginning to recognize just how devastating and paralyzing the whole cycle of the abuse has been.
Some symptoms and lingering long-term effects that prevent us from moving into our lives fully with a renewed sense of purpose, vitality, and meaning are lack of trust, lack of confidence in ourselves and our decisions, and an inability to see, know and live into “our truth”. Without truth, there is no long-lasting healing.
What are some symptoms of chronic stress?
- Anxiety and/or excess worry
- Hyper-vigilance or inability to adequately protect and do what is best for ourselves
- Excessive rumination
- Hopeless feelings of stuck
- Listlessness and boredom
- Physical pain
- Feelings of stuck
In the early stages of recovery, I became hypervigilant. Never pausing. Reacting full of fear with quills raised from perceived threats. My fight, flight, freeze response was on overdrive from years of being subjected to unpredictability and abuse. I saw narcissists everywhere. Trusting only a few friends and blocking myself from entering, exploring or opening to the prospect of learning to trust my true inner voice.
My physical body was in pain all the time. I was so anxious, afraid, and felt such shame, I couldn’t stand up for myself or defend myself. I could not see that I was not the one who should be ashamed or hiding. I couldn’t see that I was the one who deserved kindness and compassionate understanding.
Our inability to speak into truth about what was happening to us during the course of our toxic relationship may continue to keep us draped in shame. We may continue to feel a need to fix and problem solve the challenges of others, we may continue to excuse and make excuses for inexcusable behavior, we may continue to strive to remain “perfect”, we may be in a perpetual victim stance, we may be stalled and apathetic.
We may take on the words of the narcissistic abuser as if these were truth. This is where objectivity, a clear vision, and a broader perspective with sincere kindness and compassion for ourselves can bring us closer to healing.
As survivors, we are entitled to a future that is not ruled by the fears, anxiety, and deep suffering from our past.
Spending years devaluing our needs and wants, minimizing, neglecting, and labeling our needs as unimportant and inconsequential cause unhealthy habitual ways of thinking that become ingrained. We think it is normal to feel distressed. We feel resigned and accept anxiety, helplessness, and chronic stress.
Loss of self-confidence. Loss of self-esteem. Unsure of who we are. What do I stand for anymore? Who Am I? How did this happen to me?
What steps can we begin to take today to notice fear, anxiety, and worry in our bodies and begin to pull ourselves out of the thinking mind that is sending us messaging about ourselves that just isn’t true?
Mindfulness requires us to take an honest look at ourselves on the inside. Then we can make some choices.
Here is a sampling of the steps here. The complete process has been adapted from mindfulness practices. These practices continue to support those who are working towards their recovery.
Here is an abridged version of the process.
- Recognize: Just taking a moment to pause and turn inward toward how our body feels and how our mind, thoughts and feelings effect and reside in our body. If we can stay with the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that arise, we can physically feel and notice the effects of our stress and our deeply held emotions in our bodies. This may show up as a tightening or clenching in the body. A dull ache in the shoulders, a hardness, a numbness, throbbing, a clenching of the muscles, a racing heartbeat, or shortness of breath. We can stop and recognize these sensations, without judgement, and pause when they arise. We can pull ourselves out of denial and perhaps turn toward the difficulties and begin to feel them in the body.
- Open to Awareness/Acceptance: We can pause and become aware of these sensations. Just allowing them to be as they are. Again, not trying to change anything here. Just noticing and accepting what is happening. This is not resignation or apathy. This is just being with what is happening, accepting it, and opening to what is arising. Feeling into this awareness of the body.
- Label: We can name these feelings, these thoughts, these physical sensations as they arise. “ I feel anxious. I feel alone and afraid. I feel a heavy weight in my chest. I feel sad.” Continue to breathe. When we label and acknowledge an emotion, feeling, or difficulty we can tame its hold over us.
- Focus on helpful actions/Choice Point: With proper guidance and support, we can make some choices at this point.
- Take Action: Make a choice to bring some actionable steps to problem solving instead of ruminative,repetitive thinking.
- Investigate further: into what is at the “core” of this feeling.
- Shift your attention: “This repetitive thinking and spiraling into this story and this fear is not helping me. I need to go for a walk outside, call a friend, or go to a _____ class.”
- Practice gratitude: “This has been the most difficult time of my life. There are lessons here and I am grateful for ________”
- Offer compassion to yourself: I am worthy. I am loved. I am precious. You can place a hand on your heart and a hand on your belly and offer compassion and loving kindness to yourself.
For myself, I knew that crossing that bridge into the unknown was worth the fight for my life. The benefits of fighting for my life, through the blinding fear, outweighed the constant fear and unpredictability of my daily life. One fear won out over the other fear. The benefits of freedom and peace on the other side for yourself and your children outweigh the costs. You are not alone.