What is psychological abuse?

Psychological abuse, often called emotional abuse, is a form of abuse, characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another person to behavior or an event that results in psychological trauma, or a stress-related disorder, and a biological stress-related mental health condition.
Emotional Abuse Brain Injury
psychological abuse brain injury

Psychological abuse injury

Psychological abuse harms emotional and physical health through High Levels of Cortisol, the Stress Hormone. Psychological abuse produces cognitive, biological, and psycho-biological injury. Psychological abuse impairs emotional health and threatens physical health by releasing excessive cortisol hormones that cause biological illness and disease if not successfully intervened for alleviating stress. Even though you may not see an injury of psychological abuse, an injury exists by functional physiology brain-changing activity, structure, and function. Therefore, Psychological abuse causes physical harm through the physiological association of a biological and stress-related mental health condition.

Brain areas implicated in the stress response include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The link between psychological abuse and traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in these brain areas. Traumatic stress is associated with increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stressors.

How are abuse and trauma related to mental health?

Trauma can happen after you experience an event or events that hurt you physically or emotionally. Trauma can have lasting effects on your mental, physical, and emotional health. Experiencing abuse or other trauma puts people at risk of developing mental health conditions, such as:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Misusing alcohol or drugs
  • Borderline personality disorder

Abuse may have happened during childhood or as an adult. It can be emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual. Trauma can include dangerous, frightening, or extremely stressful situations or events, such as sexual assault, war, an accident or natural disaster, the sudden or violent death of a close loved one, or a serious physical health problem.

The long-term effects of abuse or trauma can include:

  • Severe anxiety, stress, or fear
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-injury
  • Suicide

How do I know if my mental health is affected by past abuse or trauma?

It can be difficult to tell whether or how much your mental health is affected by past abuse or trauma. Sometimes the symptoms of trauma or abuse don’t start to affect your life for many months or years after the event took place. If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor or nurse or reach out for help:

  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Changes in mood or appetite
  • Abusing drugs or alcohol

How is psychological abuse related to brain injury?

Disorders caused by psychological abuse include acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disorders display similar symptoms but differ in how long they last. Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) exhibit dysregulated activity from a brain structure change that impairs a survivor to be engaged in a constant stress-reactive state. Damage to the hippocampus which is exposed by racing thoughts, memory and performance impairment, marks a psychological abuse blueprint.

Traumatic stressors caused by psychological abuse are high risk for behavioral health problems, and consequences. Areas may include substance abuse, suicide, violence, behavioral health, mental and medical health problems. The damage of Psychological abuse for many victims is a lifelong problem.

Traumatic stressors activate brain structure changes. According to NINDS (The National Institute of Neurological disorders and stroke ) Traumatic brain injury (TBI), a form of acquired brain injury, occurs when a sudden trauma causes damage to the brain. Therefore, psychological abuse is defined as a “Brain Injury,” hence the definition description of TBI mirrors traumatic stressors caused by psychological abuse. Source

Understanding the Biological Brain Change

Our reptilian brain structure the brain-stem, and the cerebellum is the same structure found in a reptile's brain. It controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and balance. The reptilian brain is primed to threat operating a fluid intelligence hyper-reactive cognitive processing of threat perception, threat sensitivity, and emotional functioning such as fear, disturbance in clear thinking, decision-making, compulsive behavior, and memory impairment. Dysregulated activity from a brain structure change captivates a psychological abuse victim in a constant stress-reactive state altering thought threat perception, intimidation sensitivity, self-image, and emotional functioning ability to recognize, express, and manage feelings.

The hyper-reactive brain has Poorer white brain matter organization, lower fluid intelligence, and a higher rate of the anxiety.

Source:Alexander Olsen, Jan Ferenc Brunner, Kari Anne Indredavik Evensen, Torun Gangaune Finnanger, Anne Vik, Toril Skandse, Nils Inge Landrø, Asta Kristine Håberg. "Altered Cognitive Control Activations after Moderate-to-Severe Traumatic Brain Injury and Their Relationship to Injury Severity and Everyday-Life Function." Cerebral Cortex (2014) DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhu023


Limbic System Injury

Psychological abuse damages the limbic system. The primary structures within the limbic system include the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus.

The amygdala is the emotion center of the brain, while the hippocampus plays an essential role in the formation of new memories about past experiences.

Psychological abuse symptoms of a limbic system injury include emotional responses such as anger, low impulsivity, racing thoughts, poor memory and focus, problem-solving skills, and performance impairment.

Psychological abuse causes brain injury

“Preterm Birth Leads to Hyper-Reactive Cognitive Control Processing and Poor White Matter Organization in Adulthood.” NeuroImage. Volume 167, 15 February 2018, Pages 419-428. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.11.055 SOURCE

White Matter Microstructure in Chronic Moderate-To-Severe Traumatic Brain Injury: Impact of Acute-Phase Injury-Related Variables and Associations With Outcome Measures SOURCE

What should I do if I’ve been abused or traumatized?

The sooner you can get professional help for abuse or trauma, the sooner you can begin to get better. If you have been physically hurt, visit a hospital or doctor right away. You may also need to call the police. The doctor and the police can help document what has happened to you. This documentation may be important later if you decide to press charges against someone who attacked you.

If you are experiencing changes in how you think, feel, or behave that are interfering with your ability to work or live your life normally, reach out to a mental health professional. Find a mental health professional near you. A mental health professional can help make sense of any symptoms you may be having that are related to your abuse or trauma. The professional can help you find the best kinds of treatment to help manage symptoms of the abuse or trauma.

If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.

You can also call helplines to talk about what happened to you or get guidance about what to do:

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Phone Number: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

National Sexual Assault Hotline

Phone Number: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

Safe Helpline (for members of the military)

Phone Number: 1-877-995-5247

Abuse or trauma you have suffered is not your fault. You can get better with treatment.

How are abuse and trauma treated?

Symptoms caused by abuse or trauma can usually be treated with different types of talk therapy, medicine, or both. Therapy with a professional counselor can help you work through your feelings and learn healthy ways to cope. Medicines might include antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicine. Today, complementary mind and body therapies, such as mindfulness, relaxation therapies, and brain-based neuro-coaching are a popular choice for managing stress and trauma for all ages because of the benefits and nonnarcotic approaches to care. Mind-Body methods may be offered alone or along with traditional psychotropic medicine and treatments. 

What Science Says

Mind-Body Therapies is proven effective working with trauma, PTSD and psychological abuse.

Mind-body therapies offer proven results: Promote relaxation with scientifically proven methods to reduce anger, anxiety, depression, stress, and pain as well as improve positive mood, memory, and quality of life. Source

Mind-body therapies prove effective in helping children with pain and anxiety. Source: Published in Johns Hopkins Bayview Health & Wellness Spring 2017

For more information about Mind-body therapies or to make a request call Martha Watson, Ph.D., CAMS II,  Distance Education Coordinator (814) 662 – 5338  Insight Therapies LLC

Treatment Model: The treatment model is a combined CBT approach that employs relaxation, cognitive, and communication skills interventions (Interpersonal Skills).

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