With a Little Help, Trauma Survivors Can Overcome Relationship Barriers

Childhood trauma, such as abuse, neglect, sexual assault, and abandonment, can impact a child’s ability to form positive relationships later in life. The way a child copes with trauma can form the foundation for his or her coping strategies throughout life. Maladaptive strategies can lead to depression, eating issues, anxiety, substance misuse, sexual difficulties, and even suicide. These behaviors, coupled with the fears associated with relationships, can make adult intimate relationships, and even relationships with family and friends, difficult at best. Pratyusha Tummala-Narra of the Department of Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College recently conducted a study to determine how trauma survivors navigate the choppy waters of adult relationships and how psychotherapy assists in that process.

Tummala-Narra assessed 21 adult participants diagnosed with posttraumatic stress. All of the participants had a history of some form of abuse, including childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual assault, or neglect. They were all enrolled in group or individual psychotherapy at the time of the study. Tummala-Narra evaluated how the participants adapted on three fronts: safety, new methods of relating to issues past and present, and their evolving sense of themselves. Regarding safety, the results revealed that even though most of the participants felt relatively safe in their life situations, they still had trust and vulnerability issues. Their relationships were impacted by dissociation and painful memories related to the trauma which decreased their feelings of safety.

The participants reported positive progress in relating to their past and present circumstances. They were able to successfully process their traumatic pasts, but still reported challenges in actively pursuing behaviors that they knew were positive. For instance, some of the participants knew that empathy and self-care were important to their healing, but were still uncomfortable engaging in those behaviors. In areas of sexual intimacy, anxiety was elevated among those who still felt uncomfortable relating to their partners. “Trauma-informed psychotherapy can be helpful with this task of translating insight to practice and with helping clients manage the anxiety that can often accompany this process,” Tummala-Narra said. Although the participants were enrolled in various types of trauma therapy, they all cited that in addition to support from friends and family members, therapy did give them the insight and encouragement they needed to change their thoughts and behaviors. Tummula-Narra hopes this study will demonstrate that survivors of abuse can overcome relational challenges when they are given the proper tools to do so.

Tummala-Narra, Pratyusha, Diya Kallivayalil, Rachel Singer, and Rhiannon Andreini. Relational experiences of complex trauma survivors in treatment: Preliminary findings from a naturalistic study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice & Policy 4.6 (2012): 640-48. Print.

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  • betty


    November 26th, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    its so important that trauma survivors have adequate support and coping techniques to overcome the traumatic episode.if left unchecked,it can become quite an issue in the sense that traumatic events can haunt a person forever and impede any kind of happy activities.



    November 26th, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    How can we make more of an effort to reach more adults who have experienced childhood trauma? I mean, this is great in theory, but if you can’t reach everyone, then how are you making a real difference?

  • Slater


    November 27th, 2012 at 3:56 AM

    Have to make sure that you have the right help- sometimes the wrong people, even when they mean well can be more detrimental than not

  • Jill Bourdais

    Jill Bourdais

    November 27th, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    It would have been nice had the article been more concrete with regard to this sentence: “Trauma-informed psychotherapy can be helpful with this task of translating insight to practice and with helping clients manage the anxiety that can often accompany this process.” If anyone actually read the study, what specific trauma-informed psychotherapy is cited.
    EMDR? EFT? Sensorimotor therapy? Mindefulness? I run a support group for victims of domestic violence and am always wondering what’s best to recommend to my clients.

  • LS


    November 27th, 2012 at 1:03 PM

    Its never too late to gather a turn-around. Trauma and memories of the past hurt and affect you only as much as you let it do. Yes, its not easy but there is help out there, people and organizations willing to help, therapists with techniques on coping and overcoming. Trauma and unfavorable memories are at war with your mind. If you win you can get away from it. All starts with one step, take that and march ahead, you’re much bigger than any trauma or memory.

  • wyatt b

    wyatt b

    November 28th, 2012 at 3:58 AM

    just goes to show that for most of us it takes more than one method to help us heal- it could take therapy, support from friends and meds, possibly other things too, to help you reach complete healing

  • paul b

    paul b

    November 28th, 2012 at 11:15 AM

    the episode of trauma by itself does not cause as much damage as leaving it untreated does.intervention has to be the most important aspect.because no matter what laws or penalties we have,how strict the enforcement is,traumatic episodes do occur and there is no denying that.but to treat a person and help them walk away from it is what is required.once that is done I don not see much reason why they cannot conquer and get over the episode,thus returning to normalcy and maintaining it throughout their lives.

  • Jen W

    Jen W

    November 28th, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    @Jill Bourdais –
    I researched the article and found that due to the study location and participants’ varying degrees of trauma, different methods of trauma treatment were used and unable to be identified. The participants were also treated individually and in groups. Sorry that the research was not more specific.
    Tummala-Narra (2012) wrote “The participants in the present study were engaged in psychotherapy provided by clinicians who are trained in and utilize a model for trauma recovery that integrates an ecological perspective of trauma ( Harvey, 1996) and a stage model of trauma recovery ( Herman, 1992)” (p.643).

  • L Emery

    L Emery

    November 28th, 2012 at 7:05 PM

    One could walk away unscathed from such an experience while another could have the scars of a similar experience forever.The difference is coping,support and basically action.Action in taking steps against the effects of the experience and steps towards moving ahead,towards mental strengthening.

  • Stacey Moser

    Stacey Moser

    June 18th, 2013 at 7:34 AM

    I have severe abandonment/committment issues and it is ruining any chance of me being truly happy with anyone in life.

  • admin2


    June 18th, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    Hi Stacey,
    Have you worked with a therapist, or have you been looking for one? We encourage you to use our Advanced Search (here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html) to find exactly what you’re looking for and get some help to work on abandonment/commitment issues. Best of luck and warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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