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Emotional abuse is so damaging that years later a person can react to something that reminds them of the abuse. The reaction can be within their private thoughts and feelings, in their behaviors, or even physically indicated with increased cortisol levels in their brain and other changes such as rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing. This general set of on-going responses is categorized into a syndrome called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it is on the anxiety disorder spectrum.
In everyone’s life there are stressors: death of a loved one, illness, losses from business, etc. A psychologically healthy person has a period of adjustment and moves on. When there is psychological trauma, even the healthiest person can have trouble adjusting. The events that cause PTSD are outside the range of common, everyday stressors. They are usually sudden and violent, or they may be protracted and crushing: a rape, military combat, torture, plane crashes, etc.
Reexperiencing the Event
In PTSD the awful event will not go away. Sufferers re-experience the event with intrusive thoughts and nightmares and in episodes similar to panic attacks in which the person feels as if they are currently experiencing the trauma. The person may have an exaggerated startle reflex and be hyperalert. They likely will have trouble sleeping and, of course, suffer from depression and anxiety. All these symptoms can make it hard for the person to maintain a relationship with another person, or even hold a job.
Sticks and Stones
Contrary to the child’s poem, words can harm. In fact, words can sometimes do more damage, with more far reaching consequences, than physical abuse. Physical scars heal, psychological scars sometimes don’t. The National Center for Domestic Violence defines emotional abuse as controlling behavior through put-downs, inducing unwarranted guilt, and making the person feel crazy and humiliated. If a child is exposed to extreme, uncontrolled anger, or even the “silent treatment,” such behavior can also cause PTSD if experienced over an extended period of time.
Brain Changes from Emotional Abuse
With emotional abuse, the body is not harmed or, more precisely, the external body is not harmed. However, it has been found that chemical changes in the brain happen with emotional abuse -- cortisol levels increase, for example. Researchers have also found changes in several areas of the brain after prolonged emotional abuse. The limbic system, which controls emotion, was found to be affected, showing abnormalities on an EEG test. Similarly, the corpus callosum, which is the main communication trunk between the two hemispheres of the brain, has shown to be smaller than normal in children who have experienced emotional abuse.
Emotional Changes from Emotional Abuse
Three major categories of emotional changes are associated with PTSD: avoidance, reliving, and arousal. “Psychic numbing” is a feature associated with PTSD, where the normal emotional responses are lacking. Flashbacks and nightmares are common. Problems sleeping and feeling relaxed are common. Researchers who found abnormalities in the limbic system found the patients had more self-destructive behavior and aggression. Furthermore, victims can feel a loss of identity from the emotional abuse they suffered as well as a reduced ability to bond with others.
Timing and PTSD
Emotional abuse can happen to a person at any age. Post-traumatic stress disorder can happen at any age. Sometimes the PTSD appears immediately following a traumatic event. Sometimes there is a latency period of weeks, months, or even years. There have been cases in which the initial trauma has been repressed and many years later something triggers the memory, and then PTSD takes over the person’s life. For a long-standing case of PTSD, it is unlikely there is a quick cure. However, the most intense symptoms may be reduced with therapy and/or the administration of medications.
Treating PTSD from Emotional Abuse
Through cognitive behavioral therapy, those suffering from PTSD can become educated about PTSD and about the responses they continue to have toward their emotional memories. They will learn to replace them with healthier responses. Eye movement desensitization reprocessing takes the sufferer psychologically back through the trauma, but associates the memory in a more healthful way. Antidepressants can also be used in the treatment of PTSD.