The Trauma of Divorce—Is it PTSD?

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When it comes to life’s most stressful situations, divorce ranks second only to the death of a loved one. Divorce is one of the most challenging things you can go through, and in some cases, it can be genuinely traumatic.

In recent years, there’s a growing awareness of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). While initially associated with combat veterans (commonly called “shell shock,” or “battle fatigue”), PTSD is considered a range of symptoms experienced in response to other traumatic events as well, such as natural disasters, terrible accidents, or sexual assault.

If you have severe emotional distress related to a devastating divorce, you may wonder whether you have PTSD.

To meet a clinical definition of PTSD, a person must have been “exposed to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence” through direct exposure. It can also happen through extreme or repeated exposure to the details of the trauma, such as in professional duties (first responders, etc.) or being a witness or learning that a relative or close friend has experienced such a trauma.

A diagnosis of PTSD also requires a second set of criteria, including symptoms from the categories below:

  • Intrusion symptoms—may include nightmares, flashbacks, unwanted memories, or emotional distress when reminded of the trauma.
  • Avoidance—trying not to talk or think about the traumatic event or staying away from any external circumstances (people, places, etc.) that are reminders of it.
  • Negative thoughts and feelings/mood, or changes in cognition, beginning or increasing after the trauma—this may include feeling bad about oneself and the world, negative outlook, inability to recall important details of the traumatic event, loss of interest in activities that used to be pleasurable, feeling isolated and alone, putting exaggerated blame on oneself or others.
  • Changes in reactivity or arousal—may include hypervigilance, increased startle reflex, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, angry outbursts, aggression or irritability, risky or destructive behaviors.
  • Duration—symptoms last more than one month
  • Functional significance—symptoms impair normal life, work, activities.
  • Dissociation/derealization experiences—feeling detached or like an outside observer; feelings of unreality or distortion.
  • Delay—full diagnostic criteria reached at least six months post-trauma (though symptoms may begin immediately)

Due to the specifics of this definition, there is some contention over whether divorce, in and of itself, can cause clinical PTSD; it’s somewhat unlikely that a formal diagnosis will be made based solely on the dissolution of a marriage. However, there is no question that the emotional impact of divorce can cause symptoms very similar to PTSD. Fortunately, this is now more widely understood than in the past, and help is available for people experiencing PTSD-like symptoms associated with the painful ending of the relationship.

It’s important to know that additional factors may contribute to the trauma of divorce, making PTSD symptoms more likely or more intense—for example, a PTSD diagnosis from a past (unrelated) incident of violence or abuse within the marriage. Going through a divorce can also increase the likelihood that you’ll experience other kinds of mental illness such as anxiety and depression or have feelings of hopelessness and loss of trust.  Feeling distressed can impede your ability to manage the logistics of your divorce and focus on the wellbeing of your family.

If you believe you have PTSD-type symptoms, it’s vital to seek help. Talk to your family doctor or a mental health professional right away. In addition, you’ll need an experienced family law attorney who understands your circumstances to help ease the emotional burden and make the process go as smoothly as possible.

The attorneys at SFLG are committed to building relationships based on trust, integrity, and open communications. Every member of the firm shares the goal of preserving our clients’ dignity and humanity through what can be a complicated and painful process while at the same time achieving a favorable outcome for our clients.

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