Why PTSD Often Comes With Loneliness & How To Break Through
Suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the loneliness it causes can feel unbearable.
Growing up as a domestic abuse victim and later, a domestic violence survivor, I know that the pain of PTSD loneliness is real.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can affect anyone — including victims of terrorism, violent crime, or abuse; soldiers who have engaged in combat; people who have survived natural disasters; and even the first responders providing emergency care following any of the above.
The Department of Veterans Affairs tells us that soldiers with PTSD commit suicide at six times the rate of those without it.
Additionally, one study found that rates of suicidal ideation (49.1% to 51.9%) and suicide attempts (22.8% to 36.9%) are greater in those suffering from PTSD rooted in causes relating to violence, assault, and childhood mistreatment compared to those with no lifetime trauma or trauma without PTSD.
These staggering numbers relay the urgency of addressing depression, PTSD, and the loneliness associated with PTSD, revealing that they are serious, pervasive concerns that impact a growing number of people.
But statistics can’t tell you what it feels like to live with hopelessness, guilt, doubt, or sadness — negative concepts of self that are associated with complex PTSD — or how those feelings can turn into isolation and an unbearable sense that you’re alone in the world.
Only those who have lived it — like me, and too many others — can tell you that.
There are steps that can be taken toward achieving a healthier outlook and living a more fulfilling life, however.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve discovered that making the effort to get better makes a difference.
If you’re suffering from PTSD, I want you to know one thing that I wish I would have realized sooner, myself:
You matter. And you are worth the effort.
In this article, I’ll cover:
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing series The Roots Of Loneliness Project, the first-of-its-kind resource that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and over 100 types that we might experience over the course of our lives.
What Is PTSD Loneliness & Why Do People Experience It?
PTSD is a clinical disorder that can develop in those who have lived through a traumatic, dangerous, or severely upsetting situation.
In the case of complex PTSD, the disorder is associated with difficulties that extend to one’s behavior, emotions, interpersonal relationships, cognitive abilities, and physical health.
Soldiers, victims of violent crime, and domestic abuse survivors are common among sufferers of PTSD.
PTSD can occur after witnessing or living through:
- Military combat
- Terrorist attacks
- Random violence
- Domestic violence (physical or mental)
- Sexual violence
- Natural disasters
Veterans who have been in combat zones or other dangerous situations often experience PTSD and depression, sometimes long after returning to civilian life.
Police and firefighters among other first responders also have high rates of PTSD due to the stress of the horrific situations they so often face while on the job.
Domestic violence survivors who were victims of spousal or child abuse are also at risk for developing PTSD.
The guilt and shame that accompany DV victims can exacerbate loneliness, as well.
Survivors of violent crimes such as home invasions, robberies, sexual assaults, and experiencing or witnessing gun violence may experience PTSD and the subsequent loneliness it can cause.
Likewise, those who have lived through and survived large-scale traumas, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters, can suffer from PTSD long after the event has passed.
Symptoms of PTSD may include:
- Intrusive memories, including nightmares and emotional distress or physical reactions toward things that remind you of your trauma
- Avoidance of places, people, or things that relate to your trauma and not talking (or even thinking) about it
- Negative thoughts relating to your sense of self
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Emotional numbness
- Relationship difficulties or detaching yourself from family or friends
- No longer enjoying things you used to
- Having physical or emotional reactions to mundane situations because something reminds you of past trauma
- Experiencing guilt or shame relating to your trauma
- Engaging in self-destructive behaviors
- Anger, irritability, or aggressive outbursts
Loneliness associated with PTSD is a serious condition impacting mental and physical health. Although loneliness itself doesn’t cause PTSD, it is associated with it.
Those with PTSD are prone to loneliness because of:
- The belief that no one else could possibly understand what we’ve gone through.
- Depression often compounds PTSD symptoms, making it more difficult to reach out.
- A lack of resources to adequately help PTSD sufferers, which means that those who need treatment are less likely to get it in a timely way. The pandemic has worsened this for those working as mental health care providers or first responders.
- The stigma surrounding the need for mental health care, regrettably, keeps those with PTSD symptoms from seeking appropriate treatment.
Perhaps the most common negative thought associated with complex PTSD is that no one else could possibly understand what you’ve gone through — and it’s the primary reason why loneliness occurs in the first place.
Living with that thought for months or years at a time creates a sense of isolation and a lack of connection with others, eventually leading to chronic loneliness if left untreated.
My own PTSD originated from physical and mental abuse in childhood. Seeing friends with happy families made my own feelings of “outsider” loneliness more pronounced, and much more isolating.
Witnessing their lives and comparing them to my own, I was certain that no one could understand what it was like growing up under the yoke of a mentally ill mom.
It wasn’t until decades passed and Facebook happened that I realized how many people really did understand — and could talk about it.
As many abused children grow to believe they deserved the violence and mistreatment they received, the belief that we somehow don’t deserve happiness or anything good in our lives is as pervasive as it is dangerous.
Worse, it almost guarantees long periods of loneliness and in a lot of cases, depression.
On top of that, a lack of resources for PTSD means that accessing the help you need can be a challenge at best, and nearly impossible at worst, depending on where you live.
Finally, there is a stigma regarding mental health care in general, and PTSD treatment is no different. You’re not “broken” if you need help.
If we can accomplish one thing with this article, it would be to successfully encourage those with symptoms of PTSD to take that first — and often hardest — step and reach out for help.
The Department Of Veterans Affairs offers a variety of resources for those suffering from PTSD, as does the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI).
If PTSD is leading you toward suicidal thoughts, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time, day or night, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
If you are Deaf or hard of hearing, you can call that same number using a TTY through your preferred relay service or by dialing 711 before the number, or connect via online chat.
There are additional resources available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s website.
How To Address And Cope With PTSD Loneliness
If you ask 10 people who live with PTSD how to cope with it, you’ll likely get at least 11 answers in return.
That’s because there’s no singular formula that works for everyone. Trauma occurs in many different ways, so the “best” coping mechanism will vary from person to person.
Regardless, there are common techniques that many find helpful when facing PTSD and loneliness.
- Seek mental health treatment:
I know this may seem obvious, but seeing a mental health or medical professional about your PTSD and loneliness can literally save your life.
One-on-one counseling, medication, and group therapy can all make a profound difference in your ability to cope with PTSD symptoms in your daily life.
If you’re not sure whether you’re up to it — enlist a friend (in person or online) to go with you.
Particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many mental health care professionals have embraced virtual therapy — which means you can meet with someone from the safety and comfort of your own home.
This is especially beneficial for people whose PTSD keeps them home-bound.
- Consider Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing:
Some view this form of therapy as controversial because the brain mechanisms involved aren’t well understood.
What is known is that Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment is having a positive impact on those who live with PTSD.
Because EMDR sessions could reduce involuntary “startle” responses, it may be helpful to some.
Although it won’t work for everyone, this form of therapy could save relationships if it does. It saved mine.
Years after I was free from my abusive home life, I still flinched every time my then-boyfriend — a loving and supportive man who would never raise a hand to another person — reached for me. Even my hand.
While it’s easy to understand intellectually that a partner has PTSD, the raw emotion associated with seeing someone you care about recoil from you can cause loneliness on both sides of the relationship.
Finding ways to relieve physical symptoms of PTSD can be life-changing, and sometimes, even “controversial” techniques can be incredibly helpful if given the chance.
For instance, when administered by professionals, combinations of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) have shown promising results when used during psychotherapy for many mental health disorders, including PTSD.
That said, such therapies are best left in the hands of trained mental health professionals — do not attempt to use them on yourself.
- Occupy yourself with creative tasks as a form of therapy:
Creative pursuits can help address PTSD and the loneliness it causes.
Crafting, painting, writing, and playing music can pleasantly occupy time, of course, but these activities also provide a sense of accomplishment, which improves your overall mood.
Additionally, creative tasks can enable those suffering from PTSD to express themselves more easily and clearly, which is incredibly important for those who cannot talk about their trauma.
Even if you don’t want to verbalize what you’re feeling, expressing yourself creatively can be a form of catharsis that helps you to release some of the thoughts and feelings associated with your PTSD, alleviating loneliness at the same time.
- Practice self-care and acknowledge it as an achievement:
No one is trying to turn you into a health nut, but basic self-care can go a long way toward improving your mood and cultivating a hopeful, motivated attitude.
Particularly when you’re suffering from depression, self-care often falls to the wayside — but it’s one of the most important things you can do for yourself, each and every day.
Take a shower. Put on some fresh clothes. Eat something for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Get enough sleep — even if you need a prescription to do so.
Cut down on caffeine, sugar, and anything that makes you feel lousy after you eat it.
Exercise is important, as well, but it doesn’t have to be torture. A walk around the block, dancing to an awesome tune, or pulling out your old Dance Dance Revolution setup all work just as well as a Peloton…probably.
At the same time, it’s important to celebrate every act of self-care as a win.
To the outside world, the fact that you took a shower today might seem like the smallest achievement there ever was — but for those suffering from PTSD, it can feel like you just won a gold medal in the Olympics.
Every little thing you do for yourself, no matter how inconsequential it may be to the rest of the world, is worth acknowledging — and it’s something to be proud of.
Trust me, it’s a big deal.
- Connect with others in any meaningful way possible:
This is easier said than done — or is it?
Since the pandemic, attending a therapy session via Zoom or congregating with like-minded people on sites like Reddit, Facebook, or Quora has become the norm and aside from therapist appointments, this type of connection is readily available at the click of a mouse, anytime — day or night.
Groups that offer therapy, support, and information are everywhere you look online — and a few are still happening in person.
Not online every day? Your local library or hospital may have resources to guide you, particularly if you’re interested in attending a meeting in person.
There’s a realization that comes from building a connection with other survivors of PTSD and loneliness.
While you may have felt alone when your trauma occurred, you certainly don’t have to stay that way.
There are people who will understand the pain, guilt, shame, anger, sadness, and every other response you’ve had to your trauma.
Yes, even that one.
I mentioned earlier that it wasn’t until Facebook became a thing that I realized how many people actually did understand what I went through — and were willing to talk about it.
At the same time, I found I was able to talk to them, as well.
I discovered that I was far from alone — and so are you.
The Catch-22 of PTSD loneliness and depression is that the days when you feel the least motivated are when it’s most important to get moving.
There are things you can do to address PTSD and loneliness, depression, isolation, or other negative consequences of a traumatic experience. You don’t have to carry it alone.
Take it from someone who’s been there. Once you reach out for the help you need, odds are good that you’ll wish you had done it sooner.