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Unmasking the Trauma: Narcissistic Abuse and the Hidden Scars of PTSD

Did you know that prolonged abuse at the hands of a “narcissist” can sometimes be associated with the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), due to the complex trauma experienced? In fact, narcissistic abuse, a form of emotional abuse perpetrated by someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), can be quite devious and overwhelming because it can be hard to identify at times. However, keep in mind that not everyone with an NPD diagnosis will be or is abusive.

As a personal development life coach, I’ve been helping survivors of narcissistic abuse overcome the trauma they experienced while they were stuck in unhealthy relationships. For the past 4 years, I’ve coached people who were shocked to recognise how they’d been trapped in an abusive relationship for so long, suffering emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and even physically, without a way out. I utilise methods such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation techniques, trauma coaching, and reframing experiences, to help people navigate their journey and rebuild their lives.

After years of helping these survivors, I realised that although they were strong enough to walk away from the abuse, the effects of their agonising experiences still lingered. This is because there’s a link between narcissistic abuse and PTSD.

Narcissism is clinically recognised as a personality disorder and is one of the mental conditions listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for Mental Disorders, as a cluster B personality disorder. In other words, narcissists exist and their abuse is very real.  However, to be clear, not all narcissists (individuals with NPD) are abusive and not all abusers are narcissists by default.

Individuals who are in a toxic relationship with a “narcissist” may notice that they sometimes feel anxious, stressed, numb, or restless whenever they’re around. Emotionally, an individual displaying narcissistic behaviours can have a negative effect on those around them, making people feel unsure, discouraged, hopeless, and miserable when in their presence.

Now, imagine feeling like this continuously for months or years at the hands of a person with NPD before cutting them off. Chances are, people who finally manage to walk away from the “narcissist” are left with a lot of trauma that sometimes manifests itself in the form of Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a mental health condition that one can develop after experiencing chronic trauma for a long period of time.

How PTSD Symptoms Manifest After Experiencing Narcissistic Abuse

Complex PTSD symptoms can show up differently from one person to the next, depending on the type of narcissistic abuse they experience. The symptoms can occur as intense physical or emotional trauma reactions whenever the victim gets triggered by something that reminds them of what they went through. So, what are some PTSD symptoms individuals may experience after narcissistic abuse?


This refers to instances when individuals suddenly relive moments from a traumatic event vividly, in the present. For survivors of narcissistic abuse, the flashbacks can be triggered by strong emotions or intense situations that remind them of how they felt when they were with the abuser.

For example, let’s say a survivor of narcissistic abuse is in a situation where someone is gaslighting them, that is, using manipulation tactics to make the victim question their own sanity or reasoning capabilities. This type of situation can be so triggering that it brings back the sensations and emotions the survivor once felt when the “narcissist” would gaslight and manipulate them. If the survivor would get angry whenever the “narcissist” tried to distort their reality by lying, then having a flashback could make them lose their temper easily in the face of manipulation.

Intrusive Thoughts

Another common PTSD symptom after exposure to narcissistic abuse for too long is experiencing intrusive memories and thoughts. These are disruptive thoughts that invade the mind and are usually associated with negative emotions. A brain that’s been through chronic trauma resulting from narcissistic abuse is in a highly overactive state, which can cause it to generate involuntary unwanted thoughts.

For a survivor who’s trying to heal and gain back their power, intrusive thoughts may sometimes creep into their mind. They could be having a great time with their friends when suddenly a dark and distressing memory or feeling resulting from the abuse intrudes their mind. This may cause them to immediately withdraw or feel like harming themselves.

Whenever the intrusive thoughts come storming in, I recommend grounding yourself to draw your mind back to the present. Take deep breaths and remind yourself that you’re no longer trapped. You’re free and you’ll get past this. Remember that intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. You don’t have to act on them, and they certainly do not determine the kind of person you are.

You have the power to make your mind think of other pleasant things to distract yourself. In case the intrusive thoughts grow persistent and more violent, I recommend seeking therapy treatment from a licensed therapist.


Maybe you’re thinking, “everybody has nightmares. How can that be a symptom?” Well, in some cases, survivors may experience nightmares that replay their traumatic events in various ways. For example, they might dream about having a confrontation with their abuser, and feel trapped and powerless in the dream. As a result, disturbing dreams can leave them feeling emotionally drained and anxious when they wake, triggering their stress levels to heighten.

Additionally, the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes nightmares as dysphoric dreams that occur after experiencing a life-threatening event or feeling like your emotional or physical safety is in danger. Interestingly, most nightmares are replicative, which means that an individual will re-enact the trauma they experienced at the hands of a narcissist.

Hypervigilance and Paranoia

In some more extreme cases of narcissistic abuse, individuals may feel hypervigilant and paranoid when they’re around people. They might find themselves in a heightened state of alertness, scanning for dangers and suspicious behaviours, and overall find it difficult to trust those around them.

Furthermore, scientific research shows that people who experience PTSD after living through traumatic events such as abuse, experience amygdalar hyperactivity in their brain, resulting in hypervigilance, panic, paranoia, dissociation, and flashbacks. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions.

Final Thoughts

Have you been dealing with some of the above PTSD symptoms after leaving a narcissistic relationship? Experiencing trauma caused by a person with narcissistic behaviours takes its toll on one’s body and mind. That’s why abuse survivors get easily triggered sometimes, and are left feeling anxious, paranoid, and on edge.

Luckily, there are many ways you can deal with PTSD symptoms to heal from your trauma. You can seek trauma therapy, which will help you re-regulate your central nervous system. This treatment can be effective in dealing with nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and flashbacks. Additionally, you can try journaling or meditating. These are both great ways to understand and control how you are feeling in the moment. You can also seek evidence-based approaches for treating PTSD such as cognitive therapy, brief eclectic psychotherapy, and drug therapy among others, with the help of a licensed professional.

Don’t give up, brighter days await you.  


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