CPTSD and ISOLATION: First in a Series

In this article and the next several articles (and the corresponding videos)  I’ll be talking about one of the biggest, most common adult symptoms of childhood trauma, and that’s ISOLATION. In the three years I’ve been writing about Complex PTSD and Childhood PTSD, I’ve received thousands of YouTube/Facebook comments and messages from people who tell me how much they’re suffering with loneliness, isolation and feeling cut off from people in their lives.

It’s not just people with trauma. Lots of people are isolated. But for those of us with a rough childhood, it can be extra strong, extra limiting and very hard to reconnect. And I want to talk about why that happens, and how to start healing it.

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Part of urge to isolate is learned; it was a protective measure back when you were being traumatized. Maybe you became a blackbelt at cutting off the connection from dangerous people, even while you kept a smile on your face and interacted just enough to show the world that you were “OK.”

Your isolating tendency might also be partially neurological — a brain change that could have developed in your very early years because you didn’t get the connection and attention that babies and toddlers need to grow the neurons that support connection with other people. It’s a developmental delay for us, and something we may have to work harder at that people with a normal ability to connect. 

Just to be clear, Isolation is a different thing than solitude. Solitude is the CHOICE we make at times to be by ourselves, to focus and recharge and collect ourselves before we return to our normal level of connection with other people. And some of us with past trauma have a hard time choosing solitude when we need it. It’s a good thing to know how to do, and to be comfortable with it.

But ISOLATION is different.  It’s a state of living with very little connection to other people, and without meaningful relationships. We all do it a little at times. But if it gets so bad that it’s blocking you from being happy or functional, it’s time to shift it. And that can be hard because when life gets stressful, which it often does, PTSD symptoms can make it very tempting to go isolate further. 

Research shows that loneliness itself is a factor in the development of Complex PTSD. Loneliness also a factor causing PTSD symptoms to last longer than they otherwise would. No wonder it’s hard to heal! So what this tells us is that your best chances to overcome the harmful effects of CPTSD and Childhood PTSD — the depression, the dysregulation, the increased risk of serious health problems and yes, the isolation —  is to strengthen your ability to safely connect with other people. 

And just in case you don’t know what makes this kind of PTSD “complex”,  Complex PTSD refers to trauma that happened on an ongoing basis, usually early in life. So you’ll hear me say “Childhood PTSD” and Complex PTSD almost interchangeably, because Childhood PTSD is a large subset of CPTSD, and the symptoms are similar. 

Loneliness, it turns out. is not just painful emotionally. For your body, it’s poison. For your recovery process, it cuts you off from healing opportunities, like chaining yourself to a wall with just a little space for movement.

Yet connecting with people is risky! It’s triggering, and we screw it up all the time, and we get in deeper sometimes than we can manage. That’s really common and I’ll be taking on each of those obstacles to connection in the next few articles and videos over the coming weeks.

Some of you have written to tell me you’re resigned to loneliness. This is not uncommon in people who have been severely abused, especially as we get older. It’s everyone’s right to pull back from people if that’s what they need to do. But if you have a desire in your heart to reconnect with people and enjoy more friendship and love in your life, please stick around for these articles and videos. You may have gotten used to to a high “setpoint” of isolation — the level where you hover because it’s just so costly to your state of mind to even try to connect. I totally understand. But I want to make a strong case that learning to connect with others is something that’s worth the struggle.

I’m a big champion of “titrating” — taking changes a little at a time, in little bites (so to speak) where you try a little something, and check if you can tolerate it. Then try a little more, and check again. You don’t have to go running out and do everything at once. With CPTSD, one step at a time is usually the best long-term strategy. 

As much as we may lean on the idea that we’re totally independent and therefore we’re “strong,” living without the love and care of other people does not lead to strength. I’ve been there, and you probably have too.

So your assignment, should you choose to accept it for this topic, is to just let yourself be aware of the loneliness and isolation you feel in your life, and IF you feel sad and scared about it, just know that:

  1. it’s normal;
  2. it’s common, especially for people with early trauma, and;
  3. you can walk forward out of this isolation, step by step, no matter how far in your cocoon you’ve been hanging out, no matter how hard on yourself you may have been until today. Don’t beat yourself up for having a normal reaction to abnormal conditions in your past. You can do this!

So keep your eye out  — I’ll be talking about isolation and the obstacles we have to reconnecting in the next few articles and videos.  And in the meantime, I’ve put a bunch of links in the description section below of tools and resources you can check out if you want start diving in right away. And I’ll see you next week.


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