Nearly every person who has been in a relationship with a sociopath and survived, has asked, “Will I ever be the same?” When we ask this question, what we are really asking is if we are permanently damaged. We all know that every day we age, grow and change, therefore on a minute to minute basis we are technically not the same even when good things happen. But the trauma we have experienced is different from our everyday experiences that change us little by little. This trauma resulted from an enormous psychological, emotional and financial catastrophe. The trauma is all the more severe because the catastrophe was caused intentionally as an act of aggression by someone we loved-a sociopath. Over the next few weeks I will be discussing the psychological and emotional damage caused by sociopaths.
I was always a passionate, feeling person. Then suddenly, four years ago, in the acute aftermath of my relationship with a sociopath, I went numb. I was completely unable to feel any emotion other than fear. The fear and anxiety were very intense and were present nearly every waking moment. The waking moments were the rule rather than the exception because for the first time in my life, I was also an insomniac. I went from being a person who always hated TV to being unable to relax at all at night unless it was on. It was then I wondered if I would ever be healthy again.
I had other symptoms too. Everything seemed unreal, I as if I was dreaming. Things seemed to go in slow motion. I felt separated from what was happening, like I was an actress in a movie or play. Everything looked different than before. Colors were less vivid, but sounds seemed uncomfortably loud. The trauma had been so severe that I developed these symptoms of dissociation. Indeed, I was coming unglued!
You may have read my story and said, “Wow! I felt that way too.” Maybe you felt these feelings, but never experiencing them before, didn’t know that they represent dissociation. But what is dissociation? Does it indicate a damaged person? Does dissociation mean a person has or will develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Dissociation is the psychological experience associated with trauma that is so severe that our stress hormones and neurochemicals act like hallucinogenic drugs. Dissociation affects our senses. Our sense of time, vision, hearing, taste and touch may all be affected. Our bodies may even feel different. In extreme cases ongoing memory is also impaired and the person may develop amnesia. It is no coincidence that these symptoms are similar to those caused by serotonergic hallucinogens like Ecstasy and LSD. The serotonin system of the brain is affected by severe stress. We also know that severe stress and Ecstasy can damage the serotonin system of the brain.
That was the bad news. This is the good news. These symptoms do not necessarily evolve into PTSD or indicate damage. They can occur in most anyone if the trauma is severe enough. However, the longer a person has these symptoms, the more likely it is he/she will develop PTSD. Consider these symptoms to be a warning siren signaling the possibility of long term damage to your system.
You can protect yourself from long term damage if you recognize you are having these symptoms of dissociation. Perhaps, following your severely traumatic experience, smaller stresses cause these symptoms to recur or intensify. Your capacity to withstand stress may be severely limited for a while. If you work to reduce the controllable stress in your life you can do a lot to protect yourself from long term damage.
There are four very important practical things you can do if you recognize these signs of stress hormone overdose. The most important is to get love and social support as much as you can. Even a pet can be a source of wellness for you. By love I mean giving and receiving physical affection, hugs and caresses. If you are a parent, giving love and affection to your children will help them and you. Talking about your experiences to a friend can be helpful if you end the conversations on a positive note. Put a positive spin on everything you can.
The second thing you can do is get exercise everyday. Exercise will help your body regulate its stress hormone levels. Exercise may also help clear your mind.
The third thing you can do is eat right. Go easy on the high sugar, high fat foods. Eating right may be hard to do because the stress hormones cause carbohydrate cravings. In the early stages of my own trauma, the carbohydrate cravings fueled an obsession with food. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed watching the food channel. I also took up cooking as a hobby!
The fourth and last defense against stress is stress management. Learn to relax yourself with deep breathing. Replace hopeless, negative thoughts with more positive ones. Think everyday about what you have to be hopeful about and thankful for. Most of all don’t glorify or ruminate about being a victim. Don’t allow “victim” to become your status or your identity.
If love, exercise, diet and stress management do not greatly reduce or eliminate symptoms of dissociation, you should seek a mental health evaluation. Symptoms of dissociation are like fever. They indicate you may have a serious issue that could cause long term harm. Medication and/or psychotherapy will reduce these symptoms and hopefully prevent long term damage. If you have never had symptoms of dissociation, it is statistically unlikely you will develop PTSD. Next week I’ll discuss PTSD.