Domestic violence and PTSD: The impact on survivors

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated January 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Domestic violence, sometimes referred to as domestic abuse, is a behavioral pattern in a romantic, platonic, or familial relationship used to gain power or control over another in the same household. It can take many forms, including, but not limited to, physical, emotional, sexual, psychological, and economic exploitation. Sadly, intimate partner violence is not uncommon. The CDC reports that 41% of women and 26% of men reported sustaining physical IPV, sexual or emotional IPV at least once over their lifetime.

Those who incite domestic abuse often exhibit behaviors that manipulate, frighten, humiliate, blame, and injure physically or mentally. Abuse and domestic physical or sexual violence may happen to anyone regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, race, faith, level of education, or socioeconomic background. 

The person inciting domestic violence, the survivor, and the people who witness it may also be impacted. Domestic abuse incidents can be frequent or sporadic, but they're rarely isolated and often escalate in severity. In the worst scenarios, the abuse can result in critical injury or death. To understand the relationship between domestic violence and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it may be beneficial to become familiar with different types of abuse and their effects on the people traumatized by them.

A therapist can help you cope with abuse-related trauma

Types of domestic violence: Contact the national domestic violence hotline in crisis situations 

To understand PTSD from domestic violence, it may be beneficial to understand the types of abuse that can occur.

Physical abuse

Many believe that "domestic violence" only involves physical abuse. However, there are many forms of abuse, and physical forms are only one kind. Physical abuse often features behaviors like punching, slapping, hitting, kicking, throwing objects, using objects to inflict harm, or engaging in other violent behavior that causes harm to a person, regardless of severity. 

The threat of physical violence or intimidation from an individual can also be a form of physical abuse, such as raising a fist in anger, holding a weapon, or stating they want to hurt someone. There are many reasons why a person may experience sudden inexplicable anger, including substance abuse disorders, intermittent explosive disorder, or other mental health concerns. Regardless, physical abuse from partner aggression is dangerous and can cause lasting complications, including death. Domestic homicides account for more than half of total female victims of homicide in the general population, according to a CDC crime survey. 

Sexual abuse 

Sexual abuse includes inappropriate sexual behavior and unwanted sexual advances. Inappropriate touching, coercion, and sexual assault are included in this category. All non-consensual acts can be considered sexual violence and are traumatic to those who are on the receiving end. Sexual abuse is one of the leading causes of post-traumatic stress disorder and can lead to severe adverse events. 

Financial abuse 

Financial abuse involves actions by an individual to control another via their income and other financial aspects of their life. Those affected by this type of abuse may have a partner who dictates whether they can work and what they can do with their income. When this form of financial control is used, the survivors may struggle to leave the relationship, as they may not have the financial means to do so.

Verbal and emotional abuse 

Verbal and emotional abuse wears away an individual's confidence and self-esteem and hurts them solely through words. Because this type of abuse may not be accompanied by physical violence, it can be difficult for someone to recognize it and seek support. This tactic allows the individual acting abusively to isolate their partner from other relationships so that they'll stay with their abuser because they feel that they deserve the mistreatment or that their abuser is the only person who would love them.

Mental and psychological abuse 

Mental and psychological abuse is a pattern in which an individual may attempt to make their partner feel that they are mentally unstable, eventually compromising their mental health and well-being. By moving an individual's keys or changing parts of the environment, the individual might manipulate their partner to question their mental capacity. These actions often make the partner dependent upon them because they feel unable to handle situations or question their own sanity. Another form of partner to partner abuse can be digital abuse, when one person uses another’s phone and computer to stalk them or threaten them. Someone experiencing domestic abuse of this type may find themselves subject to extreme anxiety and frequent emotional outbursts. Psychological maltreatment is often difficult to repair, as the partner may be convinced that if they report the abuse, no one will believe them. These manipulation strategies are often referred to as gaslighting, a long-term pattern of mental abuse, and can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Identity abuse 

Identity abuse is using someone's safeguarded identity as leverage to control them. For example, an individual acting abusively may deny their partner's ability to celebrate certain holidays or engage in certain religious practices related to their ethnic or religious group. This type of abuse extends to LGBTQ+ identities as well. An individual may use a person's sexuality to threaten and control them. For example, if the person is not "out of the closet," they might out the person and cause them danger at home or in their community, which can result in a traumatic event.

The consequences of domestic abuse, including post-traumatic stress disorder

At its core, domestic abuse or violence is a way for an individual, often a family member or intimate partner, to exercise control and dominance over another. The mental and physical consequences can vary depending on which method they use. Some domestic abuse victims experience severe depression, cognitive challenges with memory, or difficulty concentrating. Survivors might feel easily startled, emotionally distant, or struggle with heart palpitations and difficulty sleeping. In some cases of trauma, witnesses and survivors may develop mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and the symptoms of PTSD that come with it.

Because of the depth and diversity of potential symptoms, and the potential for long-term complications, it can be beneficial for an abuse survivor to seek support from a mental health professional. A therapist can help individuals address PTSD symptoms, process trauma, and work toward healing and improved mental health.

PTSD from domestic violence 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness in which individuals exposed to a traumatic event or repeated traumatic events experience disruptions in thought and behavior, often causing feelings of reliving the event or fearing a recurrence through flashbacks, dreams, and memories. Symptoms can also manifest as behavioral challenges such as angry outbursts, panic attacks, and misinterpreting a situation. These challenges may additionally interfere with survivors’ ability to enjoy healthy relationships. 

Often, PSTD occurrence focuses on warfare, but any trauma can lead to PTSD. Survivors of physical and emotional trauma may feel as though they are experiencing an emergency when exposed to certain people, scenarios, environments, and sensory experiences. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can cause a dramatic emotional or physical reaction whenever those triggers occur because of years of abuse or a significant life-threatening event. No matter how much time has passed, these feelings may be as strong as the ones the person was experiencing during the event itself.

People who witness physical and emotional abuse may also develop PTSD. Depending on the witness, the frequency and intensity of symptoms can vary. In cases of PTSD in children exposed to inter parental violence, symptoms may come in the form of nightmares, constant fear or sadness, anger management issues, trouble socializing, and dramatic reactions to triggering situations, people, or places. 

Regardless of the severity of symptoms, proper treatment and support are often vital. If you develop PTSD and it is left unaddressed, symptoms may worsen, and treatment may become more complex. Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and comorbid mental disorders may ease symptoms and reduce the instances when the survivor psychologically relives the event or experiences uncontrolled thoughts about it. A licensed therapist can help create a treatment plan, and a board-certified psychiatrist may take further steps by prescribing medication or other clinical treatments if necessary.

A therapist can help you cope with abuse-related trauma

Counseling options 

Domestic abuse can have devastating consequences on the mental health of abuse victims, and for many survivors, the first step after leaving an abusive relationship can be the most difficult. However, psychological and emotional support is available. An experienced therapist can listen to your experiences and concerns and establish a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to the specific needs of domestic abuse survivors and their individual trauma response. Part of this plan may include treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and the range of accompanying symptoms, as well as learning how to express healthy anger and manage stress. 

Seeking out therapy can present unique challenges for domestic violence survivors. Resources may be stretched thin as you readjust, or attending a therapy appointment face-to-face may be dangerous or impossible. Online platforms like BetterHelp are often a solution for those barriers to treatment. 

Online therapy platforms often connect clients with therapists with professional expertise, including techniques to aid domestic violence survivors in recovery, such as trauma-focused CBT and dialectical-behavior therapy. Therapy is available online or over the phone, and you can schedule appointments on your own time. Online therapy can be convenient, and often more affordable than in-person therapy. Studies have also found that it is highly effective in treating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, with results similar to those of in-person studies. 

Takeaway

There are various types of domestic violence, and any one such trauma can lead to PTSD for those impacted. If you have been experienced domestic abuse or have been impacted by intimate partner violence and want to seek mental health service support, consider contacting an online or in-person therapist for further guidance. You're not alone, and treatment is available to help facilitate the healing process.

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