The Hidden Scars of Relational Trauma: Recognizing and Overcoming the Impact

Hui Ting Kok

What is Relational Trauma?

Relational trauma is a type of trauma that occurs within the context of relationships, such as in cases of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. It can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing, leading to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, as well as a range of other issues.
Imagine you’re a child, and your caregivers are supposed to be your safe haven. They’re the ones who are supposed to protect you and make you feel loved, cared and supported. But instead, they’re neglectful, dismissive, or even abusive. They might hit you, yell at you, gaslight you or ignore you altogether. Maybe they’re dealing with their own issues, and they just can’t be there for you in the way you need. Whatever the case may be, the result is the same: you feel hurt, confused, and scared.
These experiences can have a profound impact on your life – it can disrupt your attachment system, leading to feelings of insecurity and mistrust. You might grow up feeling like you can’t trust anyone, and have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood. You might struggle with anxiety or depression. You might even turn to substances or alcohol as a way of coping with your pain.
Relational trauma can occur at any point in a person’s life, including in adulthood. Examples of adult relational trauma may include experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in a romantic relationship, being bullied or harassed at work, or experiencing neglect or abandonment by a close friend or a family member. The effects of relational trauma in adulthood can be similar to those experienced in childhood, and can include feelings of shame, insecurities, guilt, and low self-worth.

Recognizing the Signs of Relational Trauma

While the symptoms of relational trauma can be difficult to detect, there are some signs that may indicate that a person has experienced this type of trauma. These include:

  • Avoidance of certain people or situations that may trigger memories of the trauma.
  • Hyper-vigilance, or constantly being on guard for potential threats.
  • Difficulty trusting others or forming close relationships.
  • Feeling disconnected from others or from one’s own emotions.
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame related to the trauma.

Overcoming Relational Trauma

But the good news is that it’s possible to heal from relational trauma. It takes time, effort, and the right kind of support, but it’s absolutely possible. One approach that has been found to be effective is Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. IFS is a form of therapy that helps individuals to identify and address different parts of themselves that may have been wounded by trauma, and to work towards integration and healing.

Other effective interventions for relational trauma include trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). These interventions are designed to help individuals process and heal from trauma in a safe and supportive environment.

In addition to therapy, there are also a number of self-care practices that can be helpful for individuals healing from relational trauma. These may include:

  • Engaging in regular physical exercise
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation or other relaxation techniques
  • Spending time in nature or engaging in creative expression
  • Building a supportive network of friends and family
  • Seeking out support from peer-led groups or online forums