- The majority of people will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
- Traumatic reactions are a collection of physical and emotional symptoms that tie a person to their abuser.
- Narcissists inflict intense emotional, mental, and psychological trauma on their victims and even third parties, such as friends of the victim.
Humans are incredibly resilient and have the capacity to recover from practically anything. Injuries, illness, car accidents, and other physical manifestations of trauma can heal with enough time and patience. Emotional and mental trauma, however, is invisible and can be far more complicated to recuperate from.
Manifestations of mental trauma can be separated according to physical or emotional impact. Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as an emotional response to a terrible, shocking, or painful event (2013). No matter the type or significance, trauma lowers a person’s feelings of trust, comfort, and safety, which results in higher levels of fear and worry.
Safety is of paramount importance to a human being; a lack of safety triggers a response from our primal core to protect ourselves and those we love. The fight/flight/freeze reaction is triggered whenever we feel uneasy, suspicious, or fearful. How we respond to these triggers is purely individual.
Mental trauma can be difficult to define as it is made up of varying circumstances and contexts. It can be used as an umbrella term or a collection of afflictions that encompasses both physical and emotional manifestations. Reactions to trauma can include the medically-recognized afflictions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress. These conditions can be treated either individually or as part of a holistic plan.
Commonality and uniqueness of trauma
Traumatic events are, unfortunately, impossible to avoid. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that over half the population will experience some sort of traumatic event in their lives (FHE Health, 2021). However, what constitutes an event as traumatic is totally up to the individual. What may be a commonplace situation to one person may be shocking and traumatic to another: The situation is the same, but the impact is not.
For example, consider the reaction of a bystander of a car accident compared to that of a surgeon or first responder. An EMT is familiar with this scene, whereas a college student is not. The EMT will most likely not have lingering emotional trauma, but the college student may find himself suffering from insomnia or flashbacks.
Mental or emotional trauma is commonly associated with large-scale events, such as terrorist attacks, shootings, earthquakes, and floods that are broadcasted and reported on. Television, radio, and internet reports can quickly and virally spread the coverage—and risks of emotional trauma—across the world.
Personally traumatizing events can be equally damaging but are not as widely recognized. These jarring and life-changing events include sexual assault, accidents, cancer, emergency surgery, and domestic violence. Incidents that occur silently or behind closed doors are just as emotionally crippling as widespread events and should be recognized as such.
Experiencing narcissistic trauma
The experience of dealing with a narcissist can cause significant emotional trauma, not just for the direct victim but also for third parties, such as those closely involved with the victim. No matter the relationship with the victim—be it a friend, partner, or parent—any type of emotional involvement will increase the risk of being affected. Associates of the victim can—and will—become targets of the narcissist.
Even the most well-meaning and supportive individuals can fall victim and find themselves struggling with psychological trauma. The signs of trauma are varied and will manifest in different ways depending on the situation and individual involved. Those attacked by narcissists will feel a variety of emotions and reactions that will reinforce the fight/flight/freeze reaction.
Physical effects of trauma can manifest as a decline in health and can occur widely across a spectrum. Headaches can vary from mild discomfort to paralyzing migraines, and excessive fatigue can range from insomnia to oversleeping. Other victims report increased substance abuse, verbal outbursts, increased aggression, and the emergence of eating disorders.
After Bree found out about her partner’s infidelity and faced the abuse she had tolerated over the years, she developed a severe eating disorder that led to her losing over 50 pounds in just a few months. It wasn’t a conscious decision, nor was she unhappy with her weight. “It didn’t matter what you put in front of me; I could not eat it. All I did was shake and cry.”
If the trauma occurs in a physical place—such as a room or specific location—the victim may physically associate the trauma with the area and experience intense discomfort. Hot flashes, a racing pulse, lightheadedness, skin-crawling—all of these and more are physical symptoms of trauma or the memory of trauma. Diane witnessed a verbal fight between a friend and her narcissistic ex and became an unwilling participant in the fight. “I had seen these types of blow-out arguments on Jerry Springer , but I always thought they were scripted. Never imagined they happened in real life,” she recalls.
Diane ended up collateral damage and became a victim of the narcissistic ex. “The verbal abuse, the screaming, and name-calling, and then it escalated into physical violence and throwing things until the cops were called… I was so shocked I couldn’t physically move. My friend was eventually emotionally beaten down, and then the ex started attacking me… and I just felt powerless. And then, when I tried to leave, the person hid my keys, and I was literally forced to stay there and be abused. I felt as if I wasn’t physically there, but just watching what was going on.”
Diane still experiences flashbacks and high levels of anxiety from the event. It happened months ago, but when she went back to the home where the argument happened, she physically and emotionally reacted. Diane’s fight/flight/freeze reaction was initiated by both memories of the event and the physical reminder of the location.
She states, “I cannot physically be in the location. I can’t. I walk in the door, and it’s as if I am back there, as if I never left that day, and the ex is there behind a door, waiting to start screaming again and throwing things. My heart races, I find myself in a cold sweat, and I just cannot relax. Everything floods back. I have explained many times to my friend that I cannot be in that house. She doesn’t understand because that fight was par for the course. I didn’t even know the ex. It was the second time I had ever seen (the ex), but I still became a target. I have never experienced that kind of vitriol and abuse, and it haunts me.”
Emotional manifestations are invisible and often longer-lasting than physical signs of trauma recovery. Individuals who are suffering from narcissistic trauma may find themselves with a high level of mistrust, hopelessness about the future, and a significant loss of self-esteem and sense of who they are as a person. The abuse from a narcissist will essentially cause the victim (first- or second-degree) to feel emotionally out of control and unstable. The negative memories and painful flashbacks will overpower any semblance of goodness. Depression, languishing, and general disinterest in life will become the norm.
In addition to an eating disorder, Bree also developed an inability to leave the home she previously shared with her abuser. “For the most part, I didn’t leave my house for four months… I had to a few times, and each time I had a panic attack.”
Bree was convinced that the inner turmoil she was feeling was etched all over her face. “I felt like everyone could see the pain on my face and knew exactly what happened. I was constantly terrified.” The only thing that helped Bree’s recovery was leaving her narcissist partner and moving back to her childhood hometown. “I had become a shell of my old self.”
Diane echoed the loss of self. “I became this hypersensitive, mistrusting, anxious child,” she says. “And I know better. I know who I am. But in that moment, being emotionally and figuratively ripped apart, I ceased to exist. Throughout the entire thing, my friend became a stranger to me. They turned into this completely different person than who they are with me. They couldn’t come to my defense or help me or even look in my direction.”
The lack of memories or overabundance of negative memories is another common side effect of narcissistic abuse. “During marriage counseling, the therapist asked me and my (now ex) wife to write down our favorite memories together,” recalls Jackson. “I couldn’t write down one happy thing, just everything negative that led us to that point. And we weren’t always unhappy… but I had nothing.”
Emotional abuse—especially long-term abuse—can alter memories and distort them. Trauma can cause flashbacks, unwanted thoughts about the person or situation, and even gaps in memory. Leila spent over 10 years with her narcissistic partner and their two children. “My therapist has asked if I had any clear memories of that time,” she says. “I have very few memories of when the kids were little or my pregnancy with them. I was basically just trying to survive each day. Everything is fuzzy.”
Hopelessness is another key sign of traumatic abuse, and unfortunately, it is one that is hard to overcome. “I was with a wonderful man, but I couldn’t deflect the emotional attacks from his ex any longer,” says Olivia, who was forced to end her relationship because of a narcissistic abuser. “He couldn’t break free of her abuse, and that abuse trickled down to me… and you can’t prove emotional abuse in court or to a police officer. There was no recourse. I became depressed, anxious. We discussed marriage, but I couldn’t be in a marriage made up of three people—especially one who was so evil. I had no hope for the future.”
Bree recognizes this feeling when facing the fallout from her abuser: “I felt everything was hopeless.”
Narcissists do not allow for the possibility of hope. Being unable to fight a narcissist does not mean you are weak; instead, it means that you are human, and the narcissist is inhuman. Only a person devoid of empathy and emotion can consistently attack and tear down another human being without losing sleep. A normal person cannot keep up the abuse or the charade without breaking down—only a sociopath can.
Can one recover from emotional trauma? Yes, but not without scars or lingering effects. The only person unaffected is the narcissist.
A special thank you to the individuals who agreed to speak with me and trusted me to create a safe space to share their words. I wish us all peace.
American Psychological Association. (2021). “Trauma”. https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/
FHE Health. (n.d.). “Statistics on mental trauma”. https://fherehab.com/trauma/statistics