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Trauma Relapse: A Common PTSD Experience

Updated on November 1, 2017
Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

My passion is to inspire and coach people to achieve what they want to get out of life.

What is PTSD?

The Trauma Thrill

I discovered a common relapse connection among many of my trauma life coaching clients who had experienced childhood abuse and trauma. The relapse connection I discovered I termed “trauma thrill”.

A trauma thrill is an act of reconnecting to an old traumatic memory, traumatic relationship, mindset, or lifestyle due to being triggered through experiencing a new traumatic situation or present trigger from a life situation. The automatic response of the Core Self is to protect self by invoking old past survival patterns to stop the pain of the recent traumatic situation that is triggering the old patterns.

A new life situation would also connect to old survival skills even after years of successful growth and recovery is more common than known. A survivor will continue with old survival behavior, emotion, or negative thought patterns even though the content may be self-limiting or self-destructive. Even though the survivor is using old survival skills to survive a current abusive or traumatic situation, he or she blames, shames and puts guilt on self for doing so. He or she feels disloyal to self as well as betraying recovery.

Clinical studies have shown that if a person does anything like a behavior, thought, feeling or substance over and over again then the person becomes used to it. Those actions become a repetitive pattern or a "lifestyle". Losing that lifestyle like achieving sobriety, even though he or she wants out of it, is a “loss”. If the loss is not grieved then it is ever present in the subconscious mind in form of personal crisis, extreme stress or presents itself in the form of a trauma situation (real or perceived) he or she will revert back to old lifestyles.

Relapse Story

I was coaching a 40-year-old female who had 4 years of post-recovery from childhood/adulthood abuse and emotional trauma. After a successful experience in an inpatient psychiatric program where she identified and connected with her system. What she accomplished in the inpatient program was to break her old destructive patterns (behavioral, emotional and mental), she reduced the intensity of her PTSD symptoms and entered into true symptom reduction and achieved stabilization.

Once out of the program and back home she had a new sense of self, confidence, and freedom. She was able to live in the here and now every day. Her past was not her focus anymore. She felt safe and for the first time in her life, she had hope and a future. She set a new course of education and went back to school to get a Master's Degree. With years of hard work and consistency, she graduated and was awarded a Master’s Degree. With that accomplishment, she secured an excellent job in her field. Her path of recovery was working she even got into a loving relationship with someone who was nurturing, supportive, and safe but also fulfilling emotionally to her. Before she entered into recovery, she had been convinced that she would never have a loving or safe relationship. See, she had been taught and told her whole life by her perpetrators that she was unlovable. From that point on she always believed she did not deserve a loving relationship.

After years of love and closeness with her partner, the wonderful relationship shocking and suddenly ended due to the death of her partner. She lapsed into feelings of emptiness, grief, loss, fear, and abandonment. Even with all the successful years of recovery, she started experiencing and displaying old destructive behaviors, emotions, and reactions once again. Behaviors just like the ones she had displayed before at the height of her PTSD symptoms. Old thought patterns and old negative beliefs she had previously before about herself got triggered by the loss and continuously surface into her consciousness, She felt helpless to stop them. She turned to doubting herself, denying herself, critical self-judgment and self-harming herself. She became very mentally confused, dissociating and in inner crisis daily. She stated to me “this is stuff is so familiar to me, but I cannot seem to stop it”. To attempt to stop her downward spiral she started drinking alcohol every day. She realized that she was very uncomfortable in her own skin.

She desperately wanted out of her devastating cycle and back into her life. She began Life and Post Trauma Coaching sessions. It was very different than therapy because Life Coaching believes that the answer is the client, not the knowledge of the therapist. She found by writing her customized / intense assignments; she was able to recognize and realize where she was stuck. “I thought why was doing old destructive stuff was because of the pain of my broken heart? Over grieving the loss of my beloved partner? But actually, I came to understand it was the re-establishment, replication, and familiarity of my old toxic relationship with my traumatic lifestyle. I believed that it was my fault that my partner died.”

What came out of her hard work is that she was stuck in what I now know as a “trauma thrill”. When a survivor spends many years in repetitive abuse, chaos, crisis, confusion, dissociation, fear, pain, emotional trauma or punishment, a relationship forms with that lifestyle. A relationship between the survivor and the “traumatic lifestyle” becomes established and strong. It is known that if a person does anything, a behavior, thought, or addiction, over and over again then it embeds itself into that person. Losing that lifestyle, even though they want to get out of it, is a “loss”. Due to incorporating, the connected pain associated with the traumatic past had gone away, but a strong underlying “core belief” remained lurking in the shadows. The core beliefs were that her old traumatic lifestyle was her “best friend and exciting”. Once a person is in the “here and now, experiencing daily life”, he or she learns that everyday lifestyle is repetitious, mundane and boring compared to the old traumatic lifestyle.


What came out of her hard work is that she was stuck in what I now know as a “trauma thrill”. When a survivor spends many years in repetitive abuse as well as being in chaos, crisis, confusion, dissociation, fear, pain, emotional trauma and self-punishment it becomes his or her normal. A traumatic lifestyle. A survivor forms a relationship with the traumatic lifestyle forms even though it is destructive and for the most part painful. Over time the relationship between the survivor and the “traumatic lifestyle” becomes comfortable, familiar and strongly embedded.

Another thing she found out that occurs from repetitiveness situations of abuse or trauma is a reliance on survival skills as a way to cope even when not in trauma. The problem was that her tolerance level to pain, excitement or thrill had increased as a result. That means her threshold increased more and more. Conversely, it took more and more stimuli for her to be happy. Once free of repetitive abuse or trauma, she realized that her now normalized life was uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and uninteresting compared to the old traumatic lifestyle she had gotten so comfortable with and good at.

Through the guidance of her life coaching and customized assignments, she created an action plan, followed the plan faithfully, got out of trauma thrill cycle and returned to her life of growth and success.

As a result, she knew she had to acquire new skills to deal with future traumas or triggers. The roller coaster of trauma thrilling to cope is no longer a possibility for her.

© 2010 Bill Tollefson


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    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Tollefson 

      7 years ago from Southwest Florida

      wysley - Thanks for the insightful comment and your openness to share. I am glad your disclosure also put a positive slant that one can regain balance. this is something that no one ask for, but one always seems to blame self first. Hopefully they won't after reading this.

    • wysley profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you so much for bringing to the light the insidious process that can be occuring under the surface and a person not even realize it. Just like you mentioned a person who has been thru ongoing trauma can make huge steps forward and see amazing, continuous and sustained transformation in their life, yet unexpectedly get thrown a curve ball that brings back previous ingrained responses to new traumatic events. Along with it comes the blame, guilt and shame of having such a response; doubting the growth they've made; feeling like a failure and punishing themself. As mentioned this unconscious pattern isn't something a person desires to happen but can be hard to break. Recognition and awareness is critical, which you've helped do in this article.

      Speaking from first hand experience, it's reassuring to know such occurances aren't unusual and getting back in balance is possible (also known from first hand experience). I can't thank you enough for your wisdom, insight and understanding!

    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Tollefson 

      7 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Welcome! Thanks for taking the time to receive the message. I have spent my life living with and my career working with PTSD and a way to reduce the symptoms. If you read this HUB - or check out my website you can see that there is a quicker and safer way to rid yourself of triggers and flashbacks that eat away at your life and RRT will increase the effectiveness of your therapy. Please check it out. You do not have to suffer or worry about a relapse. Blessings

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 

      7 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      This is a message I needed to hear. I am going through a treatment for PTSD right now and things are very well. But I have been living with it for19 years and it has only been the last few months that I have been able to finally deal with it in therapy without having devestating triggers, nightmares, etc. But my therapist did warn me, that even if I find a lot of recovery, the possibility of a return or relapse of symptoms could occur in the future under certain circumstances, but at least I will have the tools and recovery experience to get me back on track. Your term "trauma thrill" is not a very comfortable term to me, but I think I understand what you are talking about. Thanks Doc.

    • kimh039 profile image

      Kim Harris 

      8 years ago

      Great hub. Thanks Dr Bill.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      The fact that it can happen even years after successful recovery makes the reminders all the more important and appreciated! Thank you so very much.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Yes I have certainly experienced this "thrill" on my roller coaster but the skills you have taught help get me back on track...UR the Best!

    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Tollefson 

      8 years ago from Southwest Florida

      I am glad I am remember so well.

      Thank you very much I appreciate that

    • profile image

      Lee St. Marie 

      8 years ago

      Just what I needed to be reminded of Dr.Bill. Thank you very much I appreciate that.

    • profile image

      Donna Brumbaugh 

      8 years ago

      Thanks Dr. Bill


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