Why Narcissistic Abuse Causes Betrayal Trauma Triggers

Betrayal trauma triggers are those out-of-control feelings you experience when something reminds you of the time you had your trust broken.

It’s reliving that gut-wrenching moment when you found out someone you loved and felt safe with has lied to you.

And it ruins everything about the world you thought you lived in. Because it means the idea of who you thought they were and should be, has been completely destroyed.

So if you find yourself living in a panic, unsure who to trust, or doubting yourself. And you don’t know how you’ll ever move on, then you’re in the right place.

Know that what you’re feeling is normal and you don’t have to keep suffering, there’s ways to heal from it.

And if you’re ready to take those next steps to see how, then keep reading.

What’s betrayal trauma?

In this blog, I’m going to be referring to romantic partner betrayal (because it’s what I know about). But it can also happen in other meaningful relationships, like with parents.

And as the name suggests, the trauma arises from being betrayed by someone you love. 

So that could be through:

  • Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, verbal)
  • Infidelity (cheating with one person, or multiple people)
  • Hidden debts (like a gambling addiction, or unpaid loans)
  • Any other secretive behaviour (like a child you didn’t know about).

It’s removing your power and agency to decide on whether you want to be a part of that relationship. Because you’re unknowingly dealing with a breach of your trust.

So in the context of cheating, you don’t get a choice to leave when someone’s sneaking around behind your back.

Why narcissistic abuse is betrayal trauma

Narcissistic abuse is a type of betrayal trauma because typically you’re unaware you’re being abused. And again, it’s violating your trust and betraying your expectations of who you think they are. 

So the betrayal lies in the intentional manipulation, as well as the exploitation of your vulnerabilities. They’re undermining your sense of self worth and making you doubt your reality when you believed they cared for you. Which is a fundamental aspect of betrayal trauma.

It’s infidelity, it’s lying, it’s gaslighting you, it’s giving you the silent treatment. And over time, uncovering all that devaluing behaviour affects your whole well being. 

So it’s not just experiencing the abuse. It’s also the fact it’s being dished out by someone close to you —who you don’t expect to treat you badly. And that makes it a double blow to your heart.

Why does betrayal trauma get stuck?

Your nervous system has a natural drive for completion (Craig Penner). 

So if you’re in an environment where you’re trapped, like a narcissistic abusive relationship for example. You’re experiencing a lot of betrayal in the form of emotional abuse like manipulation, aggression or cheating. 

And that treatment makes you feel helpless and you might even question leaving them. However, that pesky trauma bond locks you to your abuser. It keeps you sticking around and hoping they’ll change. 

So you don’t leave your abusive environment, you try to make it work instead. And what that means is your body can’t complete its instinctual response to trauma (Arielle Schwartz). Which is to get you out of that unhealthy dynamic.

So that built up tension of you wanting to leave your abuser – but feeling like you can’t – doesn’t get to escape the body because you stay in that environment. 

And so when your nervous system doesn’t get to engage in its natural responses, it doesn’t get to complete its reaction. So the tension doesn’t move through the body and gets stuck there instead.

And it can get trapped in any body system, like your digestive or respiratory system. Because it senses your inability to get out of the abusive situation as threatening to you. So until it gets to find a resolution to the threat it’ll keep showing up in many ways (see below).

Effects of betrayal trauma

Understandably, being betrayed has its consequences. And it can affect you psychologically like anxiety and depression. As well as other C-PTSD symptoms like flashbacks and heightened sensitivity.

Or physically like, increased heart rate and cortisol levels. And also things like head/body aches and gut problems.

What makes it even harder as well, is you can’t always just walk away from your betrayer. For example, you might not have the financial means to leave. Or you might share children together.

And all those things just add another layer of complexity to it, making it increasingly harder to deal with the trauma.

Signs of betrayal trauma

Betrayal trauma can be a rollercoaster of emotions. One minute you’re angry, the next you’re in the depths of sadness. 

And the symptoms can start anytime after you find out about the betrayal. So the sooner you can spot them, the quicker you’ll be able to address them and start healing.

If you’re like me, you experienced a lot of intense emotions after your break up. But you didn’t connect the dots as to why you felt that way.

So simply just knowing that betrayal can cause trauma is the first step. Because then you know to look out for the signs, rather than normalising them away:

  • Intense feelings of shock, disbelief, or confusion.
  • Overwhelming emotions like anger, sadness, or grief.
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Difficulty trusting yourself and others.
  • Persistent intrusive thoughts or flashbacks.
  • Emotional numbness or detachment as a coping mechanism.
  • Physical symptoms like insomnia, fatigue, or changes in appetite.
  • Avoidance of situations or places that trigger memories of the betrayal.
  • Loss of self-esteem due to feelings of inadequacy.
  • Strained relationships with the betrayer or with anyone related to the betrayal.

Experiencing some or all of these symptoms doesn’t mean you’re weak or broken—they’re a natural response to betrayal. And if you’ve had a relationship with a narcissist, you’re likely to have felt a few of those symptoms (or even all of them).

So once you start recognising your symptoms, the next thing you need to notice is what’s causing them. Also known as your:

Betrayal trauma triggers

Betrayal trauma triggers are reminders of your betrayal. And they tend to pop up when you least expect them to. Which means you might not always know what’s going to cause your reaction.

Because you can have real obvious triggers, like watching tv and the protagonist gets cheated on. And seeing that’s a reminder of all the feelings you faced when you found out about your partner’s infidelity.

But you could also be triggered by seeing a couple in the distance holding hands. Which again, reminds you of what your partner ruined; it takes you right back to your betrayal.

So think of your triggers like time capsules that take you back to your past. And if you don’t know when to expect them, life can feel overwhelming for you.

Coping with your betrayal trauma triggers

Betrayal trauma triggers make you feel like you’re constantly on edge. Because when you’ve had one, it’s like you’re anticipating the next one to show up. But there are ways you can better cope with them:

Accept you’re experiencing betrayal trauma triggers

Pay attention to your body and your reactions because you need to acknowledge what’s happening to you first. So rather than minimising its effects, hoping they’ll go away, start giving them air time. 

Because if you ignore them, you’re not processing the effects of the betrayal. And to heal, you need to let yourself go through the motions – even when they’re uncomfortable and difficult to deal with.

It’s like rubbing salt into a wound, at first it’ll sting but improvement always follows.

So start by recognising all the times in your day where you feel triggered – that’s your map to healing. Because once you recognise your responses then you know what you need to manage.

Keep a record of your triggers

What helped me was to keep a log of anything that triggered me. So jot down the date and time, what caused it and how you reacted.

Because what that does is it helps you see how often it’s occurring. It shows you your symptoms and what brought them on.

You’re basically trying to unpack your trauma so that you can understand it better. And then you can do something about it. It just makes you more aware of your betrayal trauma triggers, so that you can better plan for them next time.

Get professional help

Having that wee timeline of events also means you’ve got them to talk about in therapy too. And then you don’t have to rely on your memory —which is already frazzled enough from enduring all your triggers.

If you’re recovering from narcissistic abuse, make sure you don’t just pick any old therapist. You’ve got to make sure they understand this type of abuse. Because otherwise you could end up getting some very terrible advice.

I’ve even known a friend tell a therapist she never wanted to go back to her abuser. And her advice was to work on it because she believed in love! So she suggested couples therapy instead!

Now if you’re trauma bonded, that’s going to make things so much worse! So be sure you look for help from people who know what they’re talking about. And who’ve had experience of it and healed from it too; it’ll make them better equipped to help you.

Minimise your exposure to them

Some triggers are a bit more manageable than others and you can even take steps to avoid them. Like not going back to places you went to with your ex.

Or if you’re a music fanatic like me, then you had to remove songs from your Spotify that you shared with your ex. Because hearing them reminds you of them and that can be really triggering.

So it’s better to delete them from your library than to be shocked by them. You don’t want to be listening to a playlist with your friends and suddenly burst into tears!

But trust me, that once you’re healed, you’ll be able to come back to that artist again. Because if their music was that good, you’ll fall back in love with that album or song all over again. And you’ll give it a whole new meaning instead.

That’s exactly what happened to me. And I don’t even give my ex a second thought when I listen to Ben Howard, or The Black Keys. Because when they sound that bloody good, they’ll come back to you when you’re ready.

You just need to create distance when your wounds are still fresh. So give yourself time to heal first and one day you’ll find the songs no longer affect you.

‘You may not be able to listen to the songs of past relationships in the first few years after the end, but soon the albums will find their way back to you. All those memories of Saturdays by the sea and Sunday-night spaghetti on the sofa will slowly unfurl from around the chords and lift, floating up out of the songs until they disappear. There will always be a fair recognition somewhere deep in the tissue of your guts that tells you that for a week this song, that man, was at the centre of your universe, but at some point it wont make your heart burn.’

Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton

How to deal with betrayal trauma triggers

When you keep experiencing betrayal trauma triggers, your brain keeps replaying those painful memories over and over again — making them stick even more. So the more you dwell on these negative emotions, the stronger they become (Arielle Schwartz).

‘What fires together, wires together’ (Donald Hebb).

But there’s hope! 

You can actually rewire your brain by introducing more positive experiences (Arielle Schwartz). Just like how practicing something repeatedly strengthens a skill, integrating positive moments can weaken the hold of those negative memories. 

It’s like giving your brain a new, happier script to follow to help you move past the pain of your betrayal.

So practicing things like mindfulness, breathing, or focusing on your senses, all help to move you away from your negative emotions. And towards a more relaxed and safe space.

You’re not going to be able to prepare for every trigger you have. Because like I said before, you’re not always going to know what’ll cause it. 

So instead of avoiding everything and limiting your life, get better at managing your symptoms when they come up. Try out different techniques and you’ll start to get to grips with what works for you.

Here’s some things you can try:

Mindfulness

By bringing your attention to the present moment, whether thats:

  • the sensation of your breath, 
  • the sights and sounds around you, or 
  • the physical sensations in your body; mindfulness gets you out of your head. 

It tunes you into your reality of the here and now. And by practicing it, you can lower the intensity of your betrayal trauma triggers.

So it’s not something you can just do for ten minutes and then be done with it. It’s a practice that needs your commitment for it to work properly. 

You don’t just stop thinking and worrying after one sesh! You’ve got to come back to it daily and train yourself to not be ruled by your thoughts. So it’s not easy. 

I’ve been doing it for a long time and even though it’s helped me massively, I still get niggling thoughts. 

But I’ve got more awareness of when it’s happening. And rather than staying deep in thought and letting it overrule my emotions, I can bring myself out of it quicker. 

So when you find yourself in a daydream, in the middle of brushing your teeth. And you’re obsessing over what happened, how many people they cheated with, how many times, or who they were with. 

What the practice of mindfulness does, is it’s training you to interrupt your thoughts. You’re practicing over and over again to refocus your attention away from them and back into the now.

And if you keep at it, you’ll get better at noticing it and you’ll have more control over your thoughts.

Because it’s not helpful to be obsessing over your betrayal. All it does is heighten your emotions and keep your trauma alive and kicking.

Give this meditation a go:

Breathing

When you go through something like betrayal trauma, your nervous system’s been subjected to a lot of stress. Because if you think about the first time you found out about it, you were in shock. You were angry, sad and feeling a lot of emotions.

And then if you keep thinking back to the betrayal, you keep reacting to it. Because your body can’t tell it’s in the past – it’s just repeating what it knows. So your body’s basically on autopilot responding to all your perceived threats.

And your intrusive thoughts are threatening for you. They get you riled up and thinking about your pain, without you even being conscious of it. And the stress of it all can cause shallow breathing, chest tightness and over-breathing (Arielle Schwartz).

So when your betrayal trauma triggers pop up out of nowhere, they kick off your natural stress responses again.

And if this is happening multiple times a day, for weeks and for months, you’re constantly in and out of fight or flight. So your nervous system stays in this state of dysregulation and needs repairing. 

How do you repair your nervous system?

The quickest way to regulate your nervous system down is by breathing (Arielle Schwartz). You want to be aiming for longer exhales that engage your parasympathetic nervous system – the one in charge of relaxing you.

So let’s take a narcissistic abuse example, like bumping into your ex’s best friend. You exchange pleasantries but after you come away from the interaction you feel in a state of panic. 

You’re reminded of your ex again and how powerless you felt. And maybe you’re also worried that their friend thinks you’re crazy. So all these thoughts are running through your mind and every emotion is heightened. As well as your breathing getting shallower and quicker. 

So when you’re in that stressful state you need to be conscious of slowing your breath right down. Aiming to get longer exhales than inhales, so you begin to calm your nervous system down.

And it’ll take a few attempts until you feel in control again. But the more you practice different breathing techniques, the more options you’ll have in your toolbox.

I love the 4-7-8 method and I use it a lot at night time before I go to sleep: 

(Skip to 3m24s if you just want to try the exercise).

Self-havening touch

I’ve saved the best one until last. And like its name suggests, this technique creates a safe space for you.

Somatic approaches help to promote feel-good chemicals. So when you’re feeling anxious, doing things like the self-havening touch helps to reprogram your traumatic memories by replacing it with more positive associations.

Noticing touch can also slow your heart rate down, lower your blood pressure and stress hormones. Which will help counteract the side effects of the panic you feel.

If you have the time, I urge you to watch the whole video because you’ll get a lot out of it. (It’s what I’ve been referencing throughout this blog too)! Because not only does Arielle Schwartz show all the techniques I’ve mentioned, she explains why they help you too.

You need to see what works best for you. So try them all when you’re comfortable at home and pay attention to how they make you feel. And then start to experiment with them in times of need and see how you get on.

Remember, practice makes perfect so don’t dismiss them after one go! 

I was awful when I first started doing a breath course! Every time I went to exhale, I was panicking because I couldn’t do it for long. And I didn’t understand how it could relax me if I was gasping for air the whole time!

But you can’t reset your breathing overnight when you’ve been doing it wrong for years! It takes time, so don’t let it put you off if you struggle at first. I took me three weeks to get the gist of it, and now I use the skills I learnt from it everyday.


Betrayal trauma triggers are a normal part of the healing process. By being aware of them and having techniques to cope with them, you can take control of your healing. And it’ll help you to move forward with confidence when you know you’ve got more agency over your emotions.

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