Q: When will the nightmares and anxiety attacks stop? It’s been nearly four years and I’m feeling more crippled by them every day. – Karen M.
A: Wow, four years of panic attacks sounds emotionally and mentally exhausting. According to Ruth Spalding, a clinical therapist who specializes in treating individuals with a history of trauma, such as domestic violence, if enduring panic attacks for this long was normal.
“Panic attacks make sense, and are pretty common after surviving domestic abuse,” Spalding says. And while four years of them is not necessarily unusual, she adds, it is severe in the sense that you should consider talking to a therapist so you can move on. “Panic attacks are so physically overwhelming and feel so awful that a lot of people struggle with treatment because treatment involves exposure to the thing that is causing the panic. You may need to go over the traumatic experiences. People are generally not excited to do that, but it’s an incredibly efficient and effective therapy.”
In the interim, when you have a panic attack, Spalding advises trying a progressive muscle relaxation technique to help calm yourself. First, put your back against the wall, if you’re able, or sit in a comfortable chair. Focus on one muscle at a time in your body, such as your left hand. Inhale and squeeze that muscle tight, in this case, making a fist. Hold for about eight seconds before releasing the tension and exhaling. Try to stay relaxed for 15 seconds and then move on to a new muscle group. You can also watch this YouTube video to help guide you through a progressive muscle relaxation.
Q: My ex-boyfriend was put in jail because he missed his court date regarding criminal charges he was facing for domestic violence. My family thinks this is a win for me because he has caused me such grief and heartache but I can’t help feeling so much guilt that he is in there. I know I didn’t force him to beat me or to miss his court case but, I just can’t help feeling sad for him. He tried to kill me but still, I feel sorry for him. –AV
Listen, tough love time. I think you need to re-read your letter to me, specifically the last sentence: “He tried to kill me.” (In journalism, we call this “burying the lead.”) This man didn’t just get angry one night and throw his dinner plate dramatically into a wall—though that type of temper is more than enough reason to kick him to the curb—he tried to end your life. He tried to murder you. It might help to say that aloud—my boyfriend wanted me to die.
Trauma-related guilt is a very real thing that survivors can experience. Trauma-related guilt is also a liar. It will tell you that you played some part in his abuse and just as you somehow caused it, you could have somehow stopped it. Let me make this very clear: THIS IS NOT TRUE.
How do I know it’s not true? Because at one point or another, most survivors have asked their partner who is abusing them to stop abusing them. And you know what? The abuser doesn’t stop. In fact, in many cases, the abuser escalates the abuse from control to intimidation to threats of violence to violence outright to, in some cases, homicide. Now, if survivors truly had some measure of control to stop it, wouldn’t the abuser have listened to their request?
Except abusers don’t. Abusers choose to abuse. No outside influence forces them to abuse. Drugs and alcohol don’t make them abuse. Previous trauma doesn’t force their hand to strike you. It’s an abuser’s choice each and every time.
This could make sense logically and still your heart can ache and tell you that you feel bad for this person. Maybe your brain is only reminding you of the good times the two of you had—and wouldn’t it be nice to get back to that?
Here’s something to keep in mind: those feelings may be the direct result of manipulation from your partner. According to Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, abusers have been known to turn on the charm after abusive and violent incidents in order to confuse their victims.
Abusive partners purposely spin a complicated web of cruelty and violence interspersed with loving acts. This manipulative pattern entraps their partners who think that if they can only ‘do better,’ they will be treated lovingly once again.”
Even locked up, your ex-boyfriend might be manipulating you into thinking this was somehow your fault. If only you hadn’t made him so mad. If only you hadn’t told someone, he could be “getting better” now. Your relationship could have a chance.
These kinds of accusations are a type of coercive control. According to Fontes, the side effects of this type of psychological control are a plummeting of self-esteem in the survivor, an increase in anxiety over keeping the abuser happy and a hefty dose of self-blame when abuse occurs. This may be where your feelings of guilt and sadness are coming from, and why it’s hard for your family to understand.