Research shows that every year, 10-50 percent of women suffer intimate partner violence. These toxic situations in a person’s life can result in a myriad of possible mental disorders or related consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even substance abuse. However, another significant result of traumatic events in a relationship as a result of a severely unhealthy domestic situation is the phenomena of avoidant coping strategies, such as traumatic bonding.
While the proposed term may not be familiar, most people have been introduced to traumatic bonding first-hand or indirectly, through a loved one. While signs of physical and psychological trauma can appear very evident in victims, usually in the form of bruises or excessive anxiety, these same victims may deny or avoid addressing their partner’s abuse. Officially, this type of bonding is characterized by ongoing cycles of abuse in which the consistent, yet grossly disproportionate, reinforcement of punishment and reward establishes an emotional bond that is very resistant to change.
In these kinds of cases, the term “Stockholm syndrome” is also thrown around loosely. This theorized, psychological manifestation shares very similar characteristics with traumatic bonding, but the former usually encompasses a hostage-captor relationship or scenario. Other terms such as reaction formation, defined as the adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are completely opposed to one’s own, is also occasionally used. Over time, different studies that observe the aspects of domestic violence and abuse use these related classifications to describe the same circumstances.
For instance, a study in 1984 examining Stockholm syndrome and related coping mechanisms discovered some forms of coping do not address the problem, but instead victims find a way to endure the situation by identifying with their abusers. Coping mechanisms like these have also been shown to have a large impact on PTSD and its relationship to women who had experienced sexual assault or domestic abuse. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition commonly triggered by a traumatic event in the person’s life, resulting in episodes of extreme anxiety and avoidance behaviors. A 1991 study found that coping strategies, such as wishful thinking that the trauma had not happened or was the victim’s own fault, were correlated with an increase of PTSD symptoms. The research even proposes a connection between this coping style and Stockholm syndrome due to the amount of self-delusion of the mutually-afflicted individuals.
In more recent years, research has delved deeper into the connection between PTSD and coping strategies. At some universities, researchers found that students with symptoms of PTSD using the health care clinic on campus were associated with higher levels of avoidance coping behaviors rather than approach coping behaviors, or actively trying to solve one’s own problems. Another study in 2009 explored the relationship between PTSD and Stockholm syndrome in populations of battered women. It was suggested that PTSD and Stockholm syndrome are correlated because of their similarity in avoidant methods of coping. As a result, a small connection was noted. When reported signs of Stockholm syndrome were low, a correlation between abuse and PTSD was observed.
Overall, these accumulated results provide the possibility that Stockholm syndrome and similar coping mechanisms not only have a relationship with mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, but that these coping styles also actively mitigate the relationship between PTSD and abuse. Whether its ramifications are classified as traumatic bonding or Stockholm syndrome, intermittent domestic and sexual abuse is a poisonous behavior that scars an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological health. This interpersonal rewiring is equally as dangerous in its ability to actually help a victim cope with feelings of anxiety and despair. Most importantly, one must be able to identify the common signs of abuse and traumatic bonding behavior:
If you or someone close to you shows symptoms of any kind of abuse, contact a support line or the nearest available treatment center for trauma and abuse, such as Sovereign Health of Arizona at 866-598-5661.
Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer
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