The Effects of Stress and Trauma on Relationships

Lesson objective:

Chronic stress and trauma can also have effects on our personality. Those effects can be exuberated by cases of inflammation, anxiety, and alertness that might contribute to the emergence of isolating behaviors and difficulties in managing relationships

We discussed previously how stress and trauma can disrupt your sense of self–both in the mind and in the body. 

Stress and trauma can affect you to your core, and those effects may last a long time and affect multiple behaviors, including relationship behaviors.  

While unfortunate, it’s quite common for chronic stress and trauma to profoundly affect attachments and  relationships, even the most intimate relationships. 

It affects our ability to form relationships, our ability to maintain existing relationships, and our ability to address relationship difficulties. 

As various systems in the body are thrown off balance by the experience of chronic stress or trauma, you may notice significant disruptions in your attachments. 

Relationships may no longer feel the same. Connections, once tight and strong, may weaken. Basically, if you feel distant from yourself, it will be difficult to feel close to others. 

There are several factors that contribute to the negative effects of stress and trauma on relationships. 


For example, negative thoughts about the self and others may erode trust. 

The inability to trust your instincts may challenge the formation of new relationships and bonds. 

Additionally, lingering anger due to stress or trauma may make it difficult to enjoy the presence of others. 

Or, the inability to convey your own pain to others may make isolation feel easier.

Elevated states of alertness, anxiety, and vigilance may contribute to isolating behaviors. 

As said, when the brain is constantly looking for threats and perceives many false alarms as threatening, it is harder to create meaningful attachments, for a number of reasons. 

Just as there are signs of hyperarousal and rapid fluctuations in the body, there are also signs of hyperarousal and rapid fluctuations in relationships and treatment of others. In other words, the same extreme reactions experienced in the brain and body also appear in relationships, and the bonds we have with others can in some ways come under attack, reflecting what is going on physiologically and psychologically. 

In relationships, we may go between:

Interest and disinterest. 

Need and lack of trust. 

Love and anger. 

Calmness and fear. 

Attraction and repulsion. 

Overall, stress and trauma may contribute to isolating behaviors and disinterest in others, or contrastingly, to aggression, irritability, and clinging to others inappropriately. Even within short periods of time, you may experience relational ups and downs, moments of pushing away and pulling too close.

Over time, the varied disturbances caused by stress and trauma make it increasingly difficult to maintain healthy attachments. If people cannot make you happy, safe, or calm, you will not seek to be around them. Over time, this cycle of hypervigilance and isolation can destroy relationships. Relationships and attachment, however, have been suggested as essential for recovering from trauma.

Here is a tremendous irony. Stress and trauma target relationships, but relationships are like medicine. One of the things damaged by stress and trauma is the very same thing that can help you overcome them.

Being close and feeling safe with another person releases oxytocin, a neurochemical previously used to treat things like depression and anxiety. Oxytocin facilitates trust and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system–remember, the brakes of the car.

When you laugh, you produce oxytocin. 

When you hold your mother’s hand, you produce oxytocin.

When you feel love, you produce oxytocin. 

When you cradle your child, you produce oxytocin.

This is just a short list of actions that can facilitate the production of oxytocin. Generally, though, acts of loving intimacy and affection stimulate the production of oxytocin. 

While not a perfect relationship, oxytocin does buffer and blunt some of the stress response associated with hypervigilance. In short, oxytocin has some role as an “anti-cortisol.” Research on this topic is still very limited, however. 

While only you know the right balance between finding support in others and keeping personal distance, we must remember that in most cultures around the world, healing happens in groups instead of individually. 

Humans are social and emotional creatures, and we build networks of family and loved ones that provide us with a feeling of safety. Dealing with trauma or chronic stress can be very difficult and taxing, and no one should be obligated to endure that alone.