When most people think of abuse, they think of physical or sexual abuse. They may imagine a parent hitting or molesting their child. Or a domestic violence situation in which one partner physically harms the other.
But there is another type of abuse that can be just as damaging: emotional abuse (also known as psychological abuse). Emotional abuse can have long-lasting effects, but it’s possible to heal from them with the right support.
What is emotional abuse?
The National Domestic Violence Hotline says that 95% of their callers report emotional abuse. According to them, emotional abuse is when someone uses non-physical tactics to control or manipulate a person or intentionally damage their self-esteem. These tactics are meant to scare, isolate, and frighten the person on the receiving end.
In romantic relationships, emotional abuse can appear as:
Humiliating you in public
Berating or insulting
Constant monitoring or possessiveness
Dismissiveness or giving the “cold shoulder”
Isolating you from other loved ones
In cases of child abuse, emotional abuse is any non-physical tactic that damages the child’s development or self-esteem. Parents who emotionally abuse their children may engage in:
Constantly criticizing the child
Threatening the child (with physical violence or abandonment)
Withholding love or affection
Making the child witness domestic violence
Ridiculing, shaming, or humiliating the child
Placing the child in chaotic or dangerous situations
Encouraging the child to participate in dangerous or inappropriate behavior
It’s not only family members and spouses who can be emotionally abusive. Some people are emotionally abused in their workplace by their colleagues or bosses. Some may be emotionally abused at school by adults or classmates.
Emotional abuse is especially dangerous because it can be difficult to identify. The line is clearer with physical abuse – there’s a physical attack involved, and it often leaves marks or bruises.
Although it’s very harmful and dangerous, emotional abuse doesn’t leave a physical mark. It’s also usually interwoven into the victim’s daily interactions with the abuser. There might not be isolated incidents of abuse – emotional abuse might be a defining factor of the relationship itself.
Victims of emotional abuse often second-guess themselves. They may wonder, “Was it really abuse, or am I just too sensitive?” It doesn’t help that the legal definition of psychological abuse differs between states and countries.
But there’s no doubt that emotional abuse leads to significant and lasting harm.
If you think you’re the victim of emotional abuse in a domestic violence situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text START to 88788.
If you know about a child being emotionally abused, call or text the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4253.
Short-term effects of emotional abuse
There are many short-term consequences that people face after they’ve been a victim of emotional abuse. Many of them are similar to the symptoms someone has after going through physical abuse or another type of traumatic event.
Some of the short-term effects of emotional abuse include:
Feelings of shame and guilt
Feelings of powerlessness or helplessness
Fear and anxiety
Unexplained aches and pains
The longer the emotional abuse continues, the more profound these symptoms may become.
Emotional abuse robs individuals and couples of the opportunity for happy relationships. Left unaddressed, it can become accepted and “the way it is.” Dr. Gregory Jantz discusses how relationships turn into emotionally abusive ones, and how you can address it in a positive way.
Perhaps the most damaging consequences of emotional abuse are its long-term effects.
Most people who experience emotional abuse are victims of it over a long period. For example, a woman may be in an emotionally abusive relationship for many years, or a child may experience emotional abuse throughout their upbringing.
In these cases, we’re no longer talking about the short-term effects after one incident of emotional abuse. Chronic abuse over a long time can significantly negatively affect the victim’s relationships, self-esteem, and mental health. Long-term emotional abuse can even cause changes in the brain itself, especially when the victim is a child.
Effects of emotional abuse on mental health
Research has found that emotional abuse negatively impacts victims’ mental health.
Victims of childhood emotional abuse are much more likely to experience depression as adults.
Emotional abuse is linked to a higher likelihood of developing eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. This is related to the way emotional abuse leads to self-criticism and shame.
Emotional abuse can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or C-PTSD (complex PTSD).
People who’ve experienced emotional abuse have a higher chance of developing substance use disorder (drug or alcohol addiction).
Emotional abuse has been linked to a higher incidence of social anxiety disorder.
Effects of emotional abuse on relationships
Experiencing emotional abuse can make you lose trust in yourself and the world around you. Unsurprisingly, this can have a significant negative impact on your personal relationships.
Being in an emotionally abusive relationship can lead to codependency. Codependency is when you start to feel like your needs don’t matter as much as everyone else’s, and you start putting your partner’s needs before yours. Your relationship may start to revolve around you taking care of your partner instead of being about an equal give-and-take.
Codependency is a relationship pattern, so you might find yourself involved in these types of unhealthy relationships even after you’ve left the original, emotionally abusive relationship.
Other ways that emotional abuse can affect your relationships include:
Having problems trusting others
Developing an attachment disorder
Having an unhealthy or extreme fear of abandonment
Challenges with authenticity and “being yourself”
Seeking out other relationships that are also emotionally abusive
Effects of emotional abuse on physical health
Emotional abuse can harm your physical health as well. Physical and mental health are deeply interlinked, and problems in one area lead to problems in the other.
Victims of emotional abuse may live with physical health problems like:
Gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Effects of emotional abuse on children
Children who go through chronic emotional abuse from a young age often live with lasting consequences of the abuse, even after they’ve grown up and left their abusive parents.
Part of this concerns the long-term consequences of emotional abuse on the brain.
Emotional abuse, especially when experienced early in life, has been shown to create changes in an area of the brain called the hippocampus. This can make it harder for a child to identify and empathize with others’ emotions, even into adulthood.
Early emotional abuse is also linked to changes in the prefrontal cortex and temporal robe. These areas of the brain are responsible for many tasks, one of them being the ability to be aware of and regulate your own emotions. Children who have been emotionally abused often experience more difficulty with emotional self-regulation.
On top of these changes in the brain, emotional abuse can affect children in the following ways:
More mental health problems in childhood and adolescence, including depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem
Increased risk for cancer in adulthood
Increased rate of self-injurious behaviors (self-harm)
Linked to childhood behavioral and emotional problems, including conduct problems, trust issues, underachievement, and more
This can lead to attachment disorders and other problems, which can make children reactive or too clingy
Delayed language development
How to heal from emotional abuse
If you’ve been on the receiving end of emotional abuse in childhood or adulthood, this doesn’t mean you’re doomed forever. There are ways to heal from any kind of abuse or trauma, but you may need support from a professional.
Working with a mental health therapist can help you overcome the lasting effects of trauma, like emotional abuse. With the help of a therapist, you can reconnect with your true self – the true self that hasn’t been damaged by abuse – and rebuild your trust in the world around you. A therapist can also help you address other mental health challenges, like depression or PTSD, which may have resulted from emotional abuse.
But the effects of abuse don’t usually fade with time. Without treatment, these long-lasting effects may even get worse.
We deeply understand the scars that emotional abuse has left you with. And we also have immense hope that you can heal from within. Our proven Whole Person Care model addresses the entire you — your emotional, medical, physical, psychological, nutritional, fitness, and spiritual needs. You are more than just the abuse you went through.
We’re here and ready to help you. Please get in touch with us for more information or to set up an intake appointment with one of our compassionate staff members.
Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...
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