Can You Get PTSD From Emotional Abuse?

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 07/26/2022

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a severe form of anxiety that happens to those who have been victims of a traumatic event like combat, terrorism, or even some sort of natural disasters like an earthquake or flood. You can also get PTSD from abuse such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Approximately 50% of all adults in the United States have been subject to trauma, and about 8% have PTSD at some time in their lives. Even if you are not the intended victim, just witnessing the event can cause PTSD in some people. In fact, the effects of PTSD can be the same, whether you are the intended victim or not.

Do You Have PTSD?

If you are not sure if you have PTSD, you can take an anxiety or PTSD test online. However, the symptoms are usually very easy to spot once they start. Some of these include:

  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the event
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Insomnia or having trouble falling asleep
  • Negative thoughts
  • Extreme anger or irritability
  • Losing interest in favorite activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Blaming yourself for the event
  • Lack of trust in anyone (paranoia)
  • Forgetting things
  • Inability to concentrate or make decisions

PTSD Can Stay Hidden For Years

The tricky thing about PTSD is the timing. It may not hit you right away. It could be years later when you suddenly have a flashback that causes you to have an anxiety attack. Alternatively, you could be just fine when one day you hear a song or smell something that reminds you of the event, and you become anxious without even knowing why.

Some of the symptoms may be so subtle that you do not even know you have them. Those with acute PTSD from a major event such as a violent attack or car accident may be afraid of crowds or riding in cars. However, those who experience PTSD from emotional abuse may not realize the extent of how their trauma affected them.

Signs Of Emotional Abuse

Since emotional abuse is so subtle and does not leave bruises or marks on the outside, most people have no idea that you are victims of abuse. In fact, you may not even know it yourself. A lot of those who are being emotionally abused have no idea that it is happening to them. The abuse may include:

  • Putting you down or calling you names
  • Making fun of your interests
  • Telling you that your accomplishments are meaningless
  • Teasing you by being hurtful
  • Insulting your looks or clothing
  • Making jokes that are about you
  • Dismissing anything important to you
  • Embarrassing you in public
  • Picking fights with you for no reason
  • Pretending to be nice and supportive while saying mean things
  • Screaming or yelling at you
  • Isolating you from others
  • Making threats
  • Swearing or cursing at you
  • Telling you that you are always wrong
  • Controlling or withholding money from you

Why Is Emotional Abuse So Harmful?

Although many people believe that physical abuse is more harmful than emotional abuse, this is just not true. The effects of emotional abuse may be subtle, but they are deep-rooted and lasting. In fact, in some cases, emotional abuse is more dangerous because most victims do not even realize what is going on, so they do not leave or get help.

No matter what kind of abuse you are subjected to, it is essential that you get out of that situation. It is bad for you, and if you have children, they are experiencing the effects. Even if they are not the targets, they can get PTSD from witnessing what is happening to you.

What Are The Short-Term Effects Of Emotional Abuse?

The short-term effects of emotional abuse may be fleeting or even so mild that they seem like no big deal, but they are a big deal and can worsen if you let it continue. Some of the short-term effects may include self-shaming, feeling hopeless, being afraid, and feeling confused. You may even have physical symptoms like:

  • Having a hard time focusing on anything
  • Being moody or taking your anger out on others
  • Nightmares
  • Muscle tension
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Random aches and pains or just feeling ill

What About The Long-Term Effects Of Emotional Abuse?

If you continue to stay in an abusive relationship and do not get treatment, the effects of emotional abuse will get worse. It will start to affect your self-esteem, relationships with others and may even cause depression. Some other effects of long-term abuse include:

  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Inability to fall asleep or stay asleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chronic aches and pains or ill feeling
  • Feeling like it is your fault
  • Anxiety attacks with symptoms like racing thoughts, fast heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, nausea, feeling like you are going to die
  • Children who witness the abuse may also show the effects with signs like insomnia, nightmares, socially withdrawing, regression, clinginess, and acting out.

Narcissistic Abuse And PTSD

The emotional abuse may be coming from someone who is a narcissist. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) normally show controlling, manipulative, and verbally abusive patterns. Some of the signs of NPD include:

  • Thinking they are better than everyone else
  • Expecting others to treat them better than everyone else
  • Arrogance and grandiosity
  • Needing constant admiration and praise
  • They have no empathy
  • Hurting others is natural for them

The Cycle Of Abuse And Narcissism

Those with NPD are often bullies and tend to be emotionally abusive. One of the worst problems with this is that NPD seems to be a product of emotional abuse. Because NPD is not present at birth and is found in those who have previously been abused, experts believe that it is a cycle of abuse that continues until someone stops it.

What Can Be Done To Treat PTSD?

Although it may be difficult to realize that you have PTSD, you need to get treatment once you know about it. Just leaving the emotionally abusive person is often not enough. Because of the long-term effects, many victims feel they are doing fine until they get a flashback or have an anxiety attack from seeing or hearing something that triggers a hidden memory.

It may be years before you realize that you have PTSD. However, you should treat it as soon as you know what is going on. Some people think it is no big deal and maybe convinced that they will just get over it. In fact, you may be fine for a long time before it strikes again, unexpectedly. Treatment is out there, though, so there is no reason to endure in silence, waiting for it to strike again.

Treatments For PTSD

In some cases, just talking to someone can help a great deal. Whether it is a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist, you need to talk to someone. In addition, while it is great to confide in your peers and loved ones, they do not have the experience and training a mental health professional has to help you cope with trauma.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is a group of different treatments that can help. Once you talk to a professional, they can suggest what they think is best for you. Some of the most common psychotherapy treatments include the following:

  • Cognitive Therapy

Also known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), this is of the oldest and most common therapy types for everything from anxiety to depression. In talking sessions with a therapist, you will learn how to recognize and change your thoughts that are plaguing you.

For example, the negative thoughts you are having or the fear of the abuse happening again. The therapist can help you find ways to change how you think about things into a more positive way of thinking. Changing how you think helps change how you feel.

  • Exposure Therapy

In exposure therapy, the therapist will get you to talk about your trauma repeatedly in a safe environment. The more you talk about it and get it out in the open, the less hold it will have over you and your feelings. You will begin to feel like you finally have control over the trauma; giving you the upper hand and helping you feel more confident.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing

Also known as EMDR, this is done by adding eye movements to exposure therapy. These eye movements help your brain process the traumatic memories you have and can change how you react to them. The therapist will have you talk about your trauma while focusing on a visual stimulus.

Like the way your body reacts to close a wound on your body, EMDR shows your mind that it can heal, so it will start to heal itself. While you concentrate on your traumatic thoughts, the therapist will have you follow their hand with your eyes, creating a biological mechanism that helps process the memories.

Talk To Someone

If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, you need to get out. Then get help. Talk to a therapist or psychologist about your situation. Even if you have not had any signs of PTSD yet. You will eventually. The earlier you get treatment, the better. You can talk to a mental health professional online without even needing an appointment. In fact, you do not even have to leave your house.