Can Emotional Abuse Cause PTSD?

Emotional abuse, sometimes called psychological abuse, is a pattern of behaviors where one person subjects another person to nonphysical acts that harm another person's overall ability to function and their mental well-being.

Emotional abuse has many forms, and while it's not always easy to identify, it can have serious and lasting effects. Although emotional abuse does not correspond to the trauma criteria required for a formal diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can still lead to significant mental and physical consequences.

Learn more about emotional abuse, its effects, and how it contributes to PTSD.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric disorder that may develop in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. PTSD can affect people of any age, ethnicity, culture, or nationality. However, women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with PTSD, and Latinx, African Americans, and American Indians are disproportionately affected compared with non-Latinx whites.

What Is a Traumatic Event?

Traumatic events may include a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist act, war or combat, rape, or being threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury. The traumatic experience could also be secondhand, such as learning about the death of a close family member or result from repeated exposure to horrible details of the trauma, such as a social worker's exposure to child abuse cases.

PTSD Symptoms

A person who is diagnosed with PTSD will experience symptoms that persist for months or even years after the traumatic event. There are four categories of PTSD symptoms, which can vary in severity:

  1. Intrusion: Intrusive thoughts, such as reliving a memory of a traumatic experience over and over again, distressing dreams, or flashbacks of the event.
  2. Avoidance: Avoiding anything that could remind you of the traumatic event, such as people, places, activities, or situations. This includes avoiding remembering, thinking, or talking about what happened or how you feel.
  3. Alterations in cognition and mood: This includes being unable to remember important aspects of the traumatic event, negative thoughts and feelings that lead to distorted thoughts about oneself or others, distorted thoughts about the cause or consequences of the event, such as blaming themselves, persistent feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, and shame, feeling uninterested in activities that used to be enjoyed, feeling detached from others, and being unable to experience positive emotions.
  4. Alterations in arousal and reactivity: Symptoms may include being irritable, having angry outbursts, behaving recklessly or in a destructive way, being easily startled, being overly suspicious of one's surroundings, or having problems concentrating or sleeping.

How Emotional Abuse Is Related to PTSD

Abusers can use many non-violent tactics to assert their power over someone. These emotionally abusive behaviors are meant to terrorize and control another person and keep them in the abusive relationship. Living in this constant state of stress or experiencing extremely frightening events, such as being threatened, can lead to symptoms of trauma.

How Trauma Impacts the Brain

Trauma and stress associated with trauma changes the brain structure and function. During a traumatic event, the body produces large amounts of stress hormones which affect the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain are responsible for feelings and actions related to fear, clear thinking, decision-making, and memory. These functions and abilities have been found to be decreased in a person who has experienced trauma.

Effects of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can have short and long-term effects on a person's mental and physical health as well as their ability to have healthy relationships down the line.

Effects of Emotional Abuse

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

Mental Health

Emotional abuse can impact your mental health. Repeatedly experiencing emotional abuse can wear down your sense of self, self-worth, and confidence. You may find yourself feeling constantly afraid, ashamed, guilty, unwanted, powerless, and hopeless. You may feel like you're unable to feel positive feelings. Emotional abuse can even lead to depression and anxiety.

Physical Health

Emotional abuse puts the body in a constant state of stress, which can lead to physical health problems, including changes to the brain. Studies have also shown that children who experience psychological abuse are at higher risk for long-term and future health problems, including diabetes, lung disease, malnutrition, vision problems, heart attack, arthritis, back problems, and high blood pressure.

Interpersonal Relationships

When you have been in an emotionally abusive relationship, the abuser has probably made you feel isolated, unwanted, and alone. These experiences affect how you see yourself and others, even when the abusive relationship ends.

Many people who have experienced abuse feel distrustful of others and cannot form stable relationships. They may end up in another abusive relationship because the dysfunctional relationship dynamic has been normalized.

PTSD Treatment

Individuals with PTSD should work with a mental health professional experienced with PTSD, such as a therapist or psychiatrist. Treatment for PTSD includes medications, psychotherapy, or both. Some people with PTSD may also be affected by ongoing trauma, depression, panic disorder, or substance abuse, which will also need to be addressed by a team of health professionals.

The most common medications for treating PTSD are SSRI antidepressants, which can often help decrease certain PTSD symptoms. Other medications may be recommended for symptoms such as sleeping problems or nightmares.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is used to help a person with PTSD learn about symptoms, identify triggers, and help develop skills and strategies to manage symptoms. In addition, psychotherapy may target symptoms directly or help a person manage social, family, or job-related problems.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Two types of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that have shown to be helpful for PTSD include prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy.

  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PE) works by helping a person face negative feelings associated with the trauma and control their fear through gradual exposure to things they have avoided since the trauma.
  • Cognitive processing therapy helps a person make sense of and reframe their bad memories and negative thoughts, as many people may have distorted thoughts, such as blaming themselves for what happened to them.

Strong social support from family and friends has also been shown to be important for those recovering from PTSD.

Summary

Emotional abuse is a type of trauma that can lead to significant consequences. PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that affects your thoughts, memory, emotions, and thinking. It can have you in a constant state of fear and alertness, which causes your body to produce large amounts of stress hormones.

Emotional abuse affects your physical and mental health, as well as your ability to form healthy relationships, even when you leave the abusive relationship. If you've been diagnosed with PTSD, a mental health professional and appropriate medication can help you process your traumas and manage symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

No one deserves to experience emotional abuse, or abuse of any kind. If you are experiencing abuse or experienced emotional abuse, you can start to begin healing with the help of a mental health professional. A mental health professional can help you learn how to cope with your trauma and help you feel a sense of hope, manage symptoms, and regain control over your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can emotional abuse affect your memory?

    Emotional abuse can cause changes to the brain that affect your memory, especially in children whose brains are still rapidly developing.

  • Is neglect or abandonment a form of abuse?

    Any pattern of behavior that affects a person's sense of self-worth, including withholding love, support, guidance, or appropriate care, is a form of emotional abuse.

  • How long does emotional trauma last?

    Emotional trauma can last months or years. Emotional abuse may not leave physical scars, but it can leave damage that lasts a lifetime.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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