When thinking about abuse, physical abuse may come to mind first. An emotionally abusive relationship can come in many forms. Emotional abuse is just as serious as physical abuse and often precedes it. Sometimes they happen together.
If you’re wondering whether it’s happening to you, here are some of the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship:
- spewing insults or otherwise ridiculing you
- attempting to make you question your own sanity (gaslighting)
- invading your privacy
- punishing you for not going along with what they want
- trying to control your life
- isolating you from family and friends
- making subtle or overt threats
If you’ve been emotionally abused, know that it’s not your fault. There’s also not a “correct” way to feel about it.
Emotional abuse isn’t normal, but your feelings are.
Continue reading to learn about the effects of emotional abuse and how to get help.
Short-term effects of an emotionally abusive relationship
You might be in denial at first. It can be shocking to find yourself in such a situation. It’s natural to hope you’re wrong.
You may also have feelings of:
This emotional toll can also result in behavioral and physical side effects. You may experience:
- difficulty concentrating
- muscle tension
- racing heartbeat
- various aches and pains
Long-term effects of an emotionally abusive relationship
Studies show that severe emotional abuse can be as powerful as physical abuse. Over time, both can contribute to low self-esteem and depression.
You may also develop:
- chronic pain
- social withdrawal or loneliness
Some researchers theorize that emotional abuse may contribute to the development of conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
Does it affect children differently?
As with adults, emotional abuse of children can go unrecognized.
If a child is experiencing emotional abuse, they may develop:
- social withdrawal
- sleep disorders
If left unresolved, these conditions can continue into adulthood and leave you vulnerable to more mistreatment.
Adults who were abused or neglected as children may also be more likely to develop chronic health problems, including:
- eating disorders
- heart disease
- mental health issues
- substance use disorders
Does emotional abuse lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Emotional abuse doesn’t always lead to PTSD, but it can.
PTSD can develop after a frightening or shocking event. Your doctor may make a PTSD diagnosis if you experience high levels of stress or fear over a long period of time. These feelings are usually so severe that they interfere with your daily functioning.
Other symptoms of PTSD include:
- angry outbursts
- being easily startled
- negative thoughts
- reliving the trauma (flashbacks) and experiencing physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat
PTSD in children might also cause:
You may be more likely to develop PTSD if you have:
- been through traumatic events before, especially in childhood
- a history of mental illness or substance use
- no support system
PTSD is often treated with therapy and antidepressants.
When you’re ready to begin recovery from an emotionally abusive relationship
Emotional abuse can lead to mental and physical symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored. But what works for one person may not work for another. And not everyone is ready to begin recovery right away.
When you’re ready to take the next step, you may find it helpful to start with any of the following tips.
Reach out for support
You don’t have to go through this alone. Talk to a trusted friend or family member who will listen without judgment. If that’s not an option, consider joining a support group for people who have experienced abuse or trauma.
Get physically active
Exercise can do more than just keep you more physically fit.
Research shows that doing moderate-intensity aerobics or a mix of moderate aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity for at least 90 minutes a week can:
- help you sleep better
- keep you sharp
- reduce your risk of depression
Even less intense physical activity, such as a daily walk, can be beneficial.
If you’re not interested in home workouts, consider joining a class. That could mean swimming, martial arts, or even dance — whatever gets you moving.
Social isolation can happen so slowly that you don’t even notice, and that’s no good. Friends can help you heal. That doesn’t mean you have to talk to them about your problems (unless you want to). Simply enjoying the company of others and feeling accepted may be enough to boost your spirits.
Consider doing the following:
- Call an old friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time just to chat.
- Invite a friend to the movies or out for a bite to eat.
- Accept an invitation even when your instinct is to stay home alone.
- Join a class or club to meet new people.
Mind your diet
Emotional abuse can wreak havoc with your diet. It can lead you to eat too little, too much, or all the wrong things.
Here are some tips that can help keep your energy level up and minimize mood swings:
- Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein.
- Eat several well-balanced meals throughout the day.
- Avoid bingeing or skipping meals.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs.
- Avoid sugary, fried, and highly processed foods.
Make rest a priority
Fatigue can rob you of energy and clear thinking.
Here are some ways to promote a good night’s sleep:
- Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Make it your goal to sleep at least seven hours a night.
- Do something relaxing in the hour before bedtime.
- Remove electronic gadgets from your bedroom.
- Get room-darkening window shades.
You can also help ease stress by practicing relaxation techniques, such as:
- listening to soothing music
- deep breathing exercises
- tai chi
It may seem counterintuitive, but volunteering your time can help ease stress, anger, and depression. Find a local cause you care about and give it a try.
When to seek professional help for an emotionally abusive relationship
Although lifestyle changes may be all it takes for some people, you may find that you need something more. This is totally OK and normal.
You may find professional counseling helpful if you’re:
- avoiding all social situations
- frequently fearful or anxious
- having frequent nightmares or flashbacks
- unable to carry out your responsibilities
- unable to sleep
- using alcohol or drugs to cope
Talk therapy, support groups, and cognitive behavioral therapy are just a few ways to address the effects of emotional abuse.
How to find a professional
If you decide to seek out professional help, look for someone with experience in emotional abuse or trauma. You can:
- Ask your primary care physician or other doctor for a referral.
- Ask friends and family for recommendations.
- Call your local hospital and ask if they have mental health professionals on staff.
- Search the American Psychological Association database.
- Search the database at FindAPsychologist.org.
Then, call a few and schedule a Q&A session over the phone. Ask them:
- What are your credentials, and are you properly licensed?
- What experience do you have with emotional abuse?
- How will you approach my therapy? (Note: This may not be decided until the therapist conducts their initial assessment of your issues.)
- How much do you charge?
- Do you accept my health insurance? If not, can you arrange a payment plan or sliding scale?
Keep in mind that finding the right therapist can take time. Here are a few questions to ponder after your first visit:
- Did you feel safe enough to open up to the therapist?
- Did the therapist appear to understand and treat you with respect?
- Do you feel good about having another session?
Meeting with a therapist once doesn’t mean that you have to stick with them. You’re perfectly within your rights to try someone else. Keep going until you find the right fit for you. You’re worth it.