Emotional Abuse Effects & Consequences: PTSD

By Corrina Horne |Updated June 23, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Debra Halseth, LCSW

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition typically associated with war and very little else, however, people who have experienced emotional abuse can also acquire PTSD. In either case, a mental health professional or online therapist can be a great asset in seeking treatment for PTSD resulting from emotional abuse.

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual abuse & violence which could potentially be triggering.

The name PTSD conjures up the image of a person in distress, coming home from war, and struggling to re-acclimate to civilian life. Many of our nation’s veterans have experienced physical and emotional trauma. While this image of a military person may be true, it is a narrow view of PTSD and fails to account for the countless circumstances that can cause PTSD involving ongoing trauma. While war certainly qualifies as an unbelievably stressful, traumatic experience, the human body was not designed to withstand any extended period of abuse, intense stress, or intense fear, and can develop the symptoms of PTSD in response to any one of these situations.

PTSD often diminishes the self worth of a person, and it can cause problems in intimate relationships and otherwise healthy relationships. This disorder can also cause problems with a person’s physical health.

What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

ptsd, emotional, abuse

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that occurs when someone has witnessed or been a part of a violent event. Physical abuse may or may not have been involved. This can include war, an accident, a natural disaster, rape, abuse, or any other form of physical assault, both witnessed as a bystander or experienced as a victim. PTSD creates something of a wound in the mind of its victims, as the stress of the event is far too much for the mind to fully comprehend and deal with.

Instead, PTSD throws up a file of sorts that slots the event away to be deconstructed and understood later. This is called going into fight or flight mode, and when that happens, a person’s brain releases stress hormones to help the physical body deal with it. Although the physical body going into a state of fight or flight is a coping mechanism, it can cause distress, because the brain may experience triggers, which then bring up the event, and the fear and distress brought about by the trauma are relived. PTSD can void a person from clear thinking.

PTSD is always due to a traumatic event. It is a serious condition, and an official diagnosis of psychological trauma can be debilitating for the people it affects. Because triggers can be anywhere and episodes can be violent or marked by extreme terror, people can have intense episodes while out and about, in the middle of school, or even while seated alone at home. So, the condition is often exacerbated by the fear of experiencing an episode in an unsafe place or experiencing the judgment of people nearby when an episode occurs. Some people with PTSD may go on to develop agoraphobia for this reason and may struggle to perform day-to-day tasks without assistance.

In mild or severe cases of PTSD, it’s important to seek professional medical advice and treatment. A licensed therapist can help a person address negative feelings and develop skills to help them cope as a part of their treatment plan. Therapists also provide accurate data, substantial updates, and offer only high quality sources of informational content on research to their clients.

PTSD Symptoms

The symptoms of PTSD are far-reaching and look different based on the cause of the trauma in question. Traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and complex PTSD are some names for PTSD.

The four core symptoms of PTSD are intrusive thoughts, avoidant behavior, persistent negative thoughts and feelings, and arousal and reactive symptoms, although a person with PTSD may also have other emotional symptoms. Without these four symptoms present for a period of at least one month, a PTSD diagnosis is not given. If these symptoms are present but daily life is not affected, PTSD is also not usually diagnosed. Diagnoses may be Inaccurate, hard to treat, or otherwise problematic for medical professionals, but there is hope even for the most severe cases.

PTSD is a disorder that deeply and overwhelmingly affects a person's ability to cope and function. Dealing with such immense stress for many years running can negatively impact a person’s physical health over the long term.

Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts might be thoughts of harming oneself or others, irrational fears, or feelings of paranoia, or even flashbacks from the event itself. Intrusive thoughts may come in the form of daylight-hour thinking or may come in the form of chronic nightmares. These thoughts will likely be difficult to push away or stamp down and affect daily living.

Avoidant Behavior

Avoidant behavior is usually engaged to avoid triggering the symptoms of PTSD. You might avoid certain places around town, avoid songs or movies, or avoid certain people in order to keep the symptoms of PTSD in many forms at bay. Avoidant behavior can also eventually wreak havoc on your life, as you cannot always avoid the triggers of PTSD, and you cannot simply stop going to work, school, or the grocery store, which could all potentially trigger you.

Negative thoughts and emotional feelings in PTSD are not fleeting moments of sadness, anger, or frustration, but are instead persistent, ongoing negative thoughts that negatively impact your ability to live your life. Some negative thoughts associated with PTSD include the notion that no one can be trusted that you are bad or evil, that you are unworthy of love, or that everyone is out to get you. Negative thoughts in PTSD can eventually lead to paranoia and other problematic thinking patterns.

Arousal and reactive symptoms are best described as feelings or impulses that feel out of your control. Constantly having angry outbursts, for example, followed by feelings of remorse. Being easily startled or frightened is another reactive behavior, as is reckless behavior, such as engaging in deliberately dangerous stunts. These symptoms can function as a means of avoiding your experience, or they can be an unconscious recreation of fear and adrenaline.

As noted earlier, PTSD not only affects veterans. You can also develop PTSD from emotional abuse, sexual abuse, or physical abuse. Recent peer-reviewed studies show that large numbers of healthcare workers have also acquired PTSD because of being vastly overworked during the pandemic based on the latest evidence based research. Medical reviewers confirm that young age, inexperience in the field, and heavy workloads contributed to an increase in healthcare workers, especially for females. Another study showed that PTSD by board certified physicians shows that there is a prevalence of PTSD in emergency room physicians.

PTSD From Abuse

You can also develop PTSD from emotional abuse. Because abuse is often not a single event, but a recurring cycle of behavior, PTSD from abuse often does not follow the standard cycle, but instead falls into the category of "complex PTSD," or PTSD that stems from multiple traumatic instances, rather than just one. Complex PTSD is also called C PTSD. C PTSD manifests in unpredictable ways. Someone with PTSD following a car accident might avoid cars altogether or drive as quickly and recklessly as possible.

What makes it so challenging for people with complex PTSD is that it is tough enough to relive or work through a single event, yet a compounding event builds upon abuse, neglect, and trauma for a person who experienced abuse again and again.

It’s a terrible thing for anyone to experience emotional abuse. A person who is a survivor of a sexual assault, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, or physical abuse experiences emotional trauma and may get PTSD or complex PTSD as a result.

Possible Treatment For PTSD

PTSD from abuse often requires far more extensive treatment, as you are not working to recover from a single event, but from what can be a lifetime of abuse. Each trauma you have endured must be processed and healed. Recovery may not only require an extensive period of therapy but can require you to create strong, firm boundaries regarding your relationships with family, as a family is often the source of physical or emotional abuse. Many people close to you will be unable to see the abuse and may not understand your perspective. Compounding trauma is not impossible to recover from, but does demand a lot of introspection, rewiring, and healing. For this reason, if it is possible, clients are encouraged to remove themselves from the source of the abuse during treatment, to make sure harmful thought patterns and experiences do not hinder the healing process.

Narcissism And Emotional Manipulation

Unfortunately, emotional abuse seems to go hand-in-hand with narcissism, whether it is the person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder perpetrating the emotional abuse, or experiencing it. It has been suggested that NPD is actually a direct result of some form of abuse or ongoing trauma. The condition is not known to exist from infancy, nor is it known to develop without the presence of some type of abuse in one's past, whether that came from a parent, a caregiver, or a loved one. PTSD, emotional abuse, emotional trauma, anxiety, and depression are often intertwined, leading to a rather extensive diagnosis for individuals. Fortunately, understanding that all of these disorders can be linked and related helps mental health professionals create a specific, targeted treatment plan. Such a plan can ease the symptoms of all of the disorders and hopefully halt a cycle of abuse and mental distress.

Narcissistic Abuse

In narcissistic abuse, PTSD can be difficult to navigate, particularly if your abuser is a partner or someone close to you or the people in your environment. You may not have the support of many people when embarking upon your healing journey, and the toll narcissistic abuse extracts from its victims is substantial. Emotional abuse from narcissism often requires you to cut off contact entirely from your abuser-or, in a case where eliminating contact is not possible, enacting severely limited contact-in order to begin the healing process. Narcissistic abuse often uses something called "gas lighting," which essentially is a tool to convince a narcissist's victim that they are crazy or unworthy and that all perceived abuse is either imagined or deserved. Recovering from narcissistic emotional abuse is far more than processing a traumatic event; it requires a complete overhaul of the way you have come to think about yourself, the world around you, and your abuser.

Can You Develop PTSD As A Result Of Emotional Abuse?

Yes. PTSD and C PTSD can absolutely come from emotional abuse. The form of PTSD most commonly associated with emotional abuse is called "complex" or "compounding" PTSD, as it displays symptoms from a cycling series of traumatic events, rather than a single, stark event. C PTSD results from ongoing trauma.

This makes the treatment for PTSD or C PTSD markedly more involved and difficult, as patients are required to work through what could be a lifetime of trauma, abuse, and reactive behaviors that have come to be seen as normal and expected, often creating a vicious cycle of abuse, freedom, and abuse. Although many people are able to break the cycle of abuse long enough to leave their abuser, if healing does not take place prior to the start of another relationship, they may fall back into an abusive relationship, as they are vulnerable to the type of manipulation employed by emotional abusers.

Conclusion

PTSD and C PTSD are complex disorders, borne of trauma, and may be perpetuated by a lack of healing from the initial source of trauma. Many clients experience their first trauma in childhood, at the hands of a parent, caregiver, or family member, and continue the cycle well into adulthood, moving from authoritative relationships to romantic relationships.

BetterHelp Can Help

If you have experienced emotional abuse or narcissistic abuse, reach out to a mental health professional to begin a treatment plan to heal from your abuse and develop healthier thought patterns about yourself, your life, and your abilities. BetterHelp is the best place to get professional medical advice, treatment, daily tips, and high quality sources of information about PTSD.  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is it possible to have PTSD from emotional abuse?

What are the signs of PTSD from emotional abuse?

Can emotional abuse be traumatizing?

Can you get PTSD from a toxic relationship?

What are the 5 signs of emotional abuse?

Can gaslighting cause PTSD?

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