6 Tools for Recovering From Relational Trauma

Relational trauma results from chronic neglect or mistreatment in childhood. It is an inconsistent attachment to a caregiver or parent that results in ongoing trauma. Later in life, relational trauma expresses itself in several damaging ways and can make establishing healthy relationships difficult. Tools like therapy, mindfulness, and positive lifestyle habits can help anyone with relational trauma heal and recover.

If you experienced relational trauma as a child, you may not realize just how impactful it can be in adulthood. It may only be years later that you realize the neglect, abuse, or inconsistency provided by a parent or caregiver has left you unable to establish healthy, satisfying relationships.

Relational trauma can be very destructive, but it can also be treated and managed. Recovery is possible if you have the right tools. Start with a mental health assessment and get the treatment you need to heal from the trauma of your past.

What Is Relational Trauma?

Relational trauma is a complicated phenomenon without an official diagnosis. Many mental health experts recognize it as a real condition or circumstance with serious consequences. Most relational trauma occurs in childhood and is related to attachment to parents or caregivers.

If a primary caregiver or parent does not provide a consistently safe and healthy environment and relationship for a child, that child may experience relational trauma and its lasting effects. The types of situations that may lead to relational trauma include:

  • Neglect or abandonment, which can be physical, emotional, or both
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Domestic violence in the home
  • Substance abuse in the parent or caregiver
  • Divorce or death of a parent or caregiver
  • Bullying

The experience of relational trauma often results from chronic issues and inconsistency. A child may have a caring parent some of the time, only to be treated badly or abandoned at other times. This inconsistency makes a child feel unstable and unsafe, which can lead to trauma. Relational trauma is the accumulation of chronic events and mistreatment.

While it is much more common in children, adult relational trauma can result from the same types of causes in an intimate relationship. Abuse, neglect, and inconsistency in care and love can all cause relational trauma and symptoms similar to PTSD.

Signs and Symptoms of Relational Trauma

If you had attachment issues in childhood and an inconsistent or abusive relationship with a parent or caregiver, you may not experience the effects until adulthood. The signs of relational trauma often appear later, especially when you begin to establish adult relationships or become a parent.

These are some of the possible signs you may be struggling with because of relational trauma in your past:

  • You fear being abandoned by your partner, resulting in neediness and an inappropriate dependence on them.
  • You have poor self-esteem and lack confidence.
  • You tend to take on too much responsibility for the emotional needs of others.
  • You avoid conflict and carefully monitor the moods of others around you so you can adjust or accommodate them accordingly.
  • You feel a strong need to be self-sufficient, which can lead to social isolation.
  • You have a hard time managing emotions and may experience mood swings or unreasonable outbursts.
  • You may have other mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. You may also struggle with substance abuse.
  • You have chronic health problems without an identifiable medical cause.

What Are the Tools That Will Help Me Heal From Relational Trauma?

The good news about struggling with relational trauma is that treatment is effective. Trauma-based therapies can help people with PTSD who suffered from a single traumatic incident. They can also help people who suffered chronic childhood relational trauma. The approaches are similar. A combination of the right treatment with lifestyle changes provides the tools you need to recover and heal:

1. A Residential Treatment Program

Any kind of treatment you can get for relational trauma will be helpful, but if you have the time to spend a few months healing, residential treatment for trauma is best. Here you can learn about how your past affected you, how to process negative emotions, and how to make concrete changes that will allow you to heal.

Residential treatment is an opportunity to truly focus your time and energy on healing and recovery. It gives you the chance to leave other responsibilities at home and get all the tools you need to return to your life more whole and healthy.

2. Trauma-Based Therapies

Whether you are able to go to residential treatment or not, trauma therapy is an essential tool in recovery. Mental health professionals specializing in trauma have several therapies in their toolkits that can help you process past experiences, reframe them, and move on to a better life.

These include trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you change negative thought and behavior patterns in constructive ways; cognitive processing therapy, which teaches you how to change false beliefs related to your trauma; eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), which uses eye movements and trauma recollection to reduce the impact of bad memories; and exposure therapy that requires you to face your traumas and fears in a safe, healing environment.

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3. Creative and Experiential Therapies

In addition to evidence-based trauma therapies, you can benefit from creative expression to heal from relational trauma. Creative therapies involve art, writing, music, dance, and other forms of expression. A trained therapist guides you through using these art forms to process and cope with past experiences.

Other types of therapy alternatives can also be useful: animal therapies, recreational experiences, and outdoor adventures, for instance. When introduced with a trained mental health professional, these types of experiences can be therapeutic and healing for victims of trauma.

4. Relationship Therapy

Focusing on yourself and your own healing is essential for recovering from relational trauma. However, your trauma affects other people and your relationships with them. To fully heal and to experience a better life with healthy relationships, it’s important to include important loved ones in the process.

Relationship therapy with a partner, a parent, or someone else important in your life can help you learn to establish healthier patterns. This will help you build a better relationship with that one person but also provide lessons you can apply to others.

5. Mindfulness Practices

If you are able to attend a residential treatment center, you will probably learn to practice mindfulness as a useful tool in recovery. Mindfulness means focusing your thoughts and senses on the present moment. This helps reduce stress and anxiety, both over the long-term and in the moment.

You can practice mindfulness during your recovery from trauma by trying meditation. A mindfulness meditation doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes a day, but you can also use it as needed. Yoga and other types of exercise can also help you be more mindful and present.

6. Healthy Lifestyle Habits

With a good foundation of treatment and therapy, a healthy lifestyle supports recovery and healing. Make good choices about how you live your life day to day to stay both physically and mentally healthy. This can take a lot of different forms:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting enough sleep every night
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Managing your physical health and medical conditions
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Finding time to spend with friends and family
  • Joining support groups for victims of relational trauma
  • Avoiding negative people who don’t support your recovery or healthy choices

Relational trauma does not have to dictate how you experience the rest of your life. You can recover from your past experiences with the help of mental health professionals, loved ones, and your own efforts. Use these tools to overcome relational trauma and learn to thrive in spite of it.