PTSD and isolation

One of the classic traits of PTSD is isolation.  PTSD sufferers often feel unable to relate to other people.  Sometimes this results from a feeling that others can’t possibly understand them, and sometimes it’s not a conscious thing at all, just an uncomfortable or even aversive feeling around other humans.

I say “other humans” because people with PTSD often feel comforted by animals.  Animals will love you unconditionally, and often will protect you during an episode of symptoms.  The mere presence of an animal can sometimes be comforting enough to head off a full-blown episode.

One problem with isolation is that it is self-perpetuating.  Who the hell wants to be around a touchy individual who tends to disappear off the map for reasons most people cannot fathom?  And if concerned individuals ask why, they are not likely to get a straight answer, because who wants to go through the whole “I have PTSD” explanation to somebody who is not on the “need to know” list?

As for people who are on the “need to know” list, their job is so difficult that many of them bail out.  Here you are with this lovely person, going along just like usual, and something you do sets them off, and all hell breaks loose.

Granted, the triggering behavior often resembles the original wounding behavior itself: aggression, threats, or actual acts of violence. And there are, unfortunately, individuals who thrive on the power trip of controlling a person with PTSD, as is seen in domestic violence, and in the pimp-prostitute relationship.

Among returning veterans with PTSD, the rates of divorce outstrip the rates of marriage success, among preexisting marriages. Likewise, the rates of homelessness among vets with PTSD are astronomical. Much of this is due to simply being unable to reintegrate, unable to relate to civilian society.

Other groups that show similar social isolation patterns are domestic abuse survivors, rape survivors, and survivors of prostitution and human trafficking. Much like combat veterans, these people find it hard to integrate into a society that not only has never had to deal with the traumas they have been through, but also may look at them as pitiful, dirty, or damaged people. In addition, survivors of domestic abuse and sexual trauma have difficulty knowing who to trust. Repeated experience of betrayal of trust erodes the foundation of the ability to trust, making isolation preferable to being abused once again.

Suicide is the ultimate act of social isolation. I don’t have the numbers handy at this moment, but the relative risk of suicide is much higher in people with PTSD than in the general population. This is greatly multiplied if the person with PTSD also has an additional psychiatric diagnosis such as Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder.

I’m breaking my head trying to come up with a good closing sentence, but I’ve depressed myself writing this post such that I can’t think of one. So that’s the way it odds, today.

Copyright 2012 Laura P. Schulman all rights reserved

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21 Comments

  1. Depressing, yes, but a useful overview! PTSD is one of the (many) diagnoses I’m particularly glad not to have now that I’ve seen how it affects a few people I know.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for that. I have PTSD, Bipolar and OCD. It’s not easy but I’ve learned to live with it with the help of a lot of therapy and at times, when absolutely necessary, medicine as well.

    Reply
    • Welcome, Ruthie, glad you’re on board. Your blog is riveting. I’m working my way through it.
      These alphabet-soup illnesses of ours: they’re our war wounds. Day by day we live with the aftermath of trauma and destruction.
      Somehow, we have come out survivors.
      I think in our blogging community there is great potential for support and even kinship, points of contact within our brokenness, a virtual hand to hold sometimes as we make our private journeys toward recovery, as much as can be.

      Reply
  3. Simren

     /  October 26, 2012

    I live with PTSD and.major depressive disorder , the latter greatly helped with meds and for PTSD Emotional Regulation Therapy. I have finally accepted social isolation , the fight to fit in became worse than the illness . The absurdity from well meaning people , thinking they can fix you with chicken soup and a pep talk on positive thinking. Perhaps if the origin of the PTSD hadn’t been from people most trusted over my lifetime there would be hope of integrating . A life of neglect, long term spousal abuse, tradgedy , loss and betrayal after betrayal in both professional & personal life, has left me very trigger sensitive. When the fear hits it’s out of this world. Through meditation, therapy and meds the isolation is now turning into solitude . I do find peace now and I’m striving for that to be more constant. Immersing myself in solitary hobbies and art feels more like love , than relating to people.

    Reply
    • Wow, Simren, thank you so much for this. It really helps me to know that you’re there, fighting your own fight and finding that winning does not mean caving in to the push to “fit in,” rather, finding what works best for you.

      I have been struggling with the fact that wounds sustained at an early age simply do not heal. Childhood abuse, starting from infancy, carried through into adulthood and peppered with additional severe traumas–it is unrealistic to expect those deep scars and still open wounds to heal in this lifetime.

      You seem to have found a wonderful, liveable balance. I am going to try to learn from you. I have an opportunity for deep solitude this winter. Maybe I could use this time for writing, drawing, knitting, walking, Yoga….mmm, sounds good. Thank you.

      Reply
    • I really like your approach to adapting, in fact accepting yourself and doing positive things with it. I am going to try to learn from you.

      Reply
  4. Hi,
    Do you have a name that I can call you by? Any sort of name will do.
    I liked your article here. I have PTSD and Bipolar Disorder and have a hard time not isolating myself. I have a church though, that is very welcoming. I try to be “of service” there so I can make some contact with other people. I have never been hurt in church – yet – so I don’t have any PTSD type moments there. Church is my sanctuary. It is a place where I feel totally safe.
    robin

    Reply
  5. Momma Bird

     /  September 1, 2013

    I chose to be alone. I don’t want to be around other people. My motto is Better Alone Than Abused. It takes too much energy to be around people – energy that I just don’t have. Other than my family, there s no one I want to socialize with.

    Reply
  6. Reblogged this on Healing From Complex Trauma & PTSD/CPTSD and commented:
    PTSD can cause isolation and is something that needs to be addressed, slowly, carefully. I could have ended up completely isolated, but I listen to how to avoid this, how to tackle anxiety and improved my ability to manage the symptoms.
    Praise God!

    Reply
  7. I have PTSD and also very isolated. My animals mean everything to me for all the reasons you mention. I never feel lonely. Maybe I should strive to change but it feels more comfortable not having to worry about what other people think.

    Reply
  8. tracie gordon

     /  September 1, 2013

    Momma Bird took the words out of my mind. I just have been through so much that in the end despite me trying over and over I just feel it’s best to stay to me. Yes I sometimes would like to be around someone who gets me without being so judgemental on what I do. Currently I just stay with my animals. I don’t get hurt by them. I work every day trying to be a better person. I have just had a few triggers I had to work through. Set me back a bit. I just know I cannot go there ever again. It truly isn’t pleasant and I have to protect myself.

    Reply
    • You are so right. Protecting ourselves from further harm is so important. I suppose if it was necessary for me to go out into the world on a regular basis I would be forced to try to deal with my triggers, but I did that unsuccessfully for nearly 50 years and then decided that peace was more important than tilting at windmills and getting nowhere but more trauma. Now I have my little dog and she’s all I need, except for a visit with my dear son whenever possible.

      Reply
  9. Joanne Shaw

     /  October 2, 2013

    This is a really interesting article. It made me feel really sad – so many people suffering out there )-:
    I have not been diagnosed with PTSD, but everything I read tells me that’s what I have – or more like Complex PTSD. I’ve been searching for answers as to why I am the way I am following trauma, especially the isolation (which as another poster wrote has actually become solitude, not unpleasant) as I used to thoroughly enjoy the company of my fellow human beings!
    It’s been four years of this now and although my nervous system has recovered a lot, this aspect of trusting other people has not.
    I have been reading a book called “How to Survive Trauma” by Benjamin Colodzin. It’s a great book. He says maybe the trick is not to try to “fit in” again, but more to find a way of being in the world that can bring you peace and joy.
    There is a photo in the book of an area in California that was persistently blasted for gold and silver for years, and a tree that subsequently grew in that area that was completely twisted and upside down looking! He used that as an example of how all living things adapt, but they may end up a bit “different”.

    Thanks for writing this, Laura. It really helps to know others are out there

    Reply
    • Hi Joanne, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. You have a really good point there: we have been so changed by our experience of trauma, whatever it happened to be, that indeed we cannot expect ourselves to be “who we were before.” We have to discover who we are NOW, and learn how to be that person in as functional a way as possible. For some people that means regulating our exposure to “the outside world.” For some people that means learning how to “re-enter,” and dealing with the fact that people they knew “before,” including family, friends, work colleagues, etc., are going to be expecting us to be who we were before, but we are not, and we no longer have the kind of connection we had before. Sometimes we can forge new connections, and sometimes that just cannot be. We see this all the time in returning war veterans, who have to try to reintegrate with wives, husbands, kids….sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It ain’t an easy row to hoe. Keep on keepin’ on, Joanne, and thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  10. In the Mountains

     /  January 11, 2014

    Speaking for myself, isolation for the most part is a blessing but I also enjoy being around people who have common decency and treat people the way they would want to be treated (sometimes) I am a animal lover also and I stay busy. I just prefer being alone for the most part. I don’t feel a need for social situations on a regular basis. Post traumatic stress will not save you from a lengthy prison sentence because you lost contol Alot of people learn this the hard way. You have to decide what is best for you. You will be the one who has to suffer the consequences. I feel fortunate because I thrive on isolation instead of walk around lonely and miserable.

    Reply
  11. Thank you for another thought provoking post.

    My diagnosis is Complex PTSD of which
    DID is an extreme symptom..

    One of my problems is that I perceive the
    world through the eyes of a wounded child.

    If I am out and see a mother shout at a child
    I become the child.

    My “talent” for dissociation is highly developed.

    When I go out, I see trauma everywhere.

    When I see a homeless Vet, I see
    a betrayal of faith.

    That is not a political perspective.

    It is the projected narrative of my childhood.

    Aspects of me that remain frozen in moments
    of isolation experience the homeless as
    men and women who are also the children of
    alcoholic parents who break their promises.

    I use DBT to manage anxiety.

    I can go for walks and interact with other
    people by using mindfulness practices.

    An average hour long walk means an
    average of three full-blown anxiety attacks
    or losing time and “waking up” on a busy
    street corner or in a crosswalk just as the
    light is changing.

    There are a hundred reasons to remain isolated
    but thousands of other reasons for doing one’s
    best to stay as engaged as possible.

    So much of what you said clicked for me.

    I am new to this diagnosis and often feel completely
    alone with it.

    Thank you again for showing me that I am not alone.

    Reply
    • Wow, thank you so much for sharing these moments of your life. I can see where dissociation would be adaptive for you. I don’t necessarily see dissociation as pathological. I see it as a protective response, a suit of armor for those of us whose protective shell has been damaged by trauma and abuse. Take care, and I look forward to seeing more of you!

      Reply

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