What is a trauma bond? This is a bond created by the good/bad reinforcement of a toxic relationship. Trauma bonds occur when a relationship is solidified and defined by trauma, such as toxicity, addiction, abuse, and abandonment.
Trauma bonds are addictive. They offer up salient brain chemicals that are hard to overcome. When people get involved in intimate relationships which are toxic they become hooked on the experiences the loved ones bring into their lives. Breaking an addiction to strong brain chemistry created by powerful emotional experiences is hard to do.
Trauma bonds with other people are stronger than typical human bonds. When a person ends a relationship that was bonded without the added component of trauma, the pain of the separation is much less intense. Breaking a traumatic bond requires a lot more work.
The purpose of this article is to help therapists encourage their clients who struggle with any type of addictive/abusive relationships and want guidance on how to break free.
Offer practical steps to begin the process of breaking an addiction to a person:
- Help those in recovery identify their feelings regarding their addictive relationships.
- Help them recognize the relationship “crazy cycle;” for instance: anticipation – encounter – momentary bliss – confusion – departure – longing – despair. Note: This is just an example; have clients identify their own cycle within their respective relationships.
- Encourage survivors of trauma bonds to write down what is being fulfilled in their addictive relationships (a sense of belonging, feeling wanted, etc.) Ask them to notice the temporary “fix” they encounter when with their toxic people; have them identify the “promise” or “hope” which they are temporarily fulfilling.
- Now it’s time to determine obsessive thoughts. Instruct clients to write down the common obsessive thoughts they have regarding their addictive/toxic persons in their lives.
- It is important for clients to commit to themselves to live in the truth. Addictive relationships are fantasies. Remind clients they are in love with what they wish the other person was.
Explain the following insights regarding the brain chemistry involved in a trauma bond:
- You are addicted to the brain chemistry attached to the anticipation and traumatic bonding surrounding the relationship. Because the relationship is so utterly unfulfilling you are left with a constant state of emptiness, which is temporarily assuaged with each encounter with your object of obsession (him or her.)
- You must abstain from your addiction.
(1) Abstain from the relationship completely (no contact); this includes texts and all social media.
(2) Abstain from and emotional entanglements; this requires detachment.
This will be a very difficult part of your journey. The brain chemicals released when trying to detach are vastly different from the neurotransmitters and hormones released when you are with your loved one.
- The main chemical released during times of stress (including emotional stress) is Cortisol. Any trigger (such as the loss of a loved one) releases chemicals from the noradrenergic system (which includes the release of Cortisol and norepinephrine.)
As you face another emotionally dysregulating departure from your loved one your stress system goes in to high gear, releasing stress chemicals in your body, which motivates you “to do something about this!” As you anticipate the relief from the stress your brain releases chemicals such as Dopamine, which offer that positive feeling of anticipation. You have entered the craving part of your addiction.
In order to break an addiction, one thing you need to realize is that you are fighting these chemical responses. This means, you will not feel very good for a while. But, rest assured, if you can abstain from responding to your brain chemistry, you can get through these tough times and your neurotransmitter system will eventually come to rest at a state of equilibrium.
Provide the following suggestions for those trying to break free from a trauma bond when in the “craving cycle.”
- Find a positive diversion or distraction; something to do with your craving energy – gardening, walking, meditating, or any other healthy activity.
- Do something non-aggressively physical, such as hiking, biking, jogging, weight-lifting, etc.
- Connect with someone healthy. Talk to a close friend and let him or her know how you really feel.
- Write in your journal. Journaling is very effective for releasing uncomfortable emotions. Write how you feel and what you want. Encourage yourself in your journal.
- Create positive mantras to help you get through the craving cycle. Encourage yourself and don’t allow yourself to obsess on self-defeating thoughts.
- Write a list of all the reasons your addictive relationship/person is bad for you. It is so easy to focus on what you miss when you are experiencing feelings of emptiness; but, if you can focus on the negative aspects of your relationship you can gird yourself up with reality.
Provide survivors with this list of Recovery Dos and Don’ts:
- I will trust my intuition.
- I will no longer participate in “no win” conversations.
- I will no longer participate in “impossible situations.”
- If I feel bad around someone I will remove myself.
- I will no longer make every decision a crisis.
- I will live one day at a time.
- When I feel anxious I will not scare myself with negative thoughts. Instead, I will encourage myself with positive ones.
- I will learn to “reframe” negative experiences. In other words, I will look for the “silver lining” in all situations.
- I will learn how to manage my emotions, rather than have them control me.
- I will take my power back.
- I resolve to believe in myself.
- If I feel emotionally unstable, I will connect with a safe person, not the object of my obsession.
- I will have compassion for myself.
- I will honor and pay attention to my feelings.
- Always remember – I cannot change another person. I can only change myself.
- Exercise; get those endorphins flowing through your bloodstream.
- I will build a new “toxicity free” life.
- I will do things for myself that bring fulfillment and honor to my life.
- I will avoid substance use/abuse
- I will find a good therapist, support group, and/or church group.
- No matter what, I will enjoy the rest of my life. I will remind myself that life is good.
Carnes, P. (1997). The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free from Exploitive Relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.