Abuse—physical, verbal, or emotional maltreatment—can leave psychological wounds that are harder to heal than bodily injuries. Intense, often negative feelings may plague the survivor, and he or she may struggle to cope and lead a happy, peaceful life. Distressing memories, anxiety, blocks to intimacy, and trust issues are common, although many people are able to overcome or minimize challenges like these.
All types of abuse are painful and can cause psychological distress, and it is not uncommon for a victim of abuse to experience more than one type of abuse. For example, someone who was sexually abused may have been emotionally abused concurrently. Abuse can occur within any relationship construct, whether familial, professional, or social, and it can also occur between strangers.
Many forms of abuse are in fact abuses of power, in which a person repeatedly attempts to control or manipulate the behavior of another person. Emotional or psychological abuse can include a chronic pattern of criticism, coercion, humiliation, accusation, or threats to one’s physical safety, and childhood neglect is also a form of psychological abuse.
Any form of abuse in an intimate relationship, from physical to psychological, constitutes intimate partner violence. In fact, psychological abuse appears in almost every case of physical aggression between intimate partners, and it is often a precursor to physical violence.
While abuse in any form can have a negative impact on an individual’s life, significant emotional or psychological problems do not necessarily result from every case of abuse. The severity of psychological repercussions can vary depending on many factors, such as how well the victim was associated with the abuser and whether the abuse was recognized or dismissed by the friends and family of the abused.
Children who have been sexually, psychologically, or physically abused often experience emotional problems that can affect their academic performance and social skills. As adults, survivors of abuse may experience difficulty maintaining healthy relationships and productivity at work. Survivors of abuse, who are at heightened risk for developing mental health issues like depression, are likely to encounter one or more of the following psychological issues:
Therapy can help a person express and process difficult emotions associated with the abuse, develop self-compassion and self-care strategies for managing moments when he or she feels emotionally overwhelmed, and learn to trust again.
Many therapeutic approaches are suitable for treating a person who has experienced abuse, from narrative therapy to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In addition, therapy may employ mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, or experiential techniques that incorporate art, journaling, or equine-assisted activities.
Group therapy has demonstrated effectiveness in providing social support to help abuse survivors cope with and transform their feelings of shame, guilt, and alienation from others as they interact and bond with other people who have lived through similar experiences. For those who fear the vulnerability and exposure they may experience in a group setting, working one-on-one with a therapist can be a more intimate and personalized experience.
Milika, 45, seeks therapy because she is in her first sexual relationship after more than two decades of avoiding intimacy. As a teenager, she was sexually abused by a male relative and feels great anxiety and anger whenever a man displays sexual desire for her. She has recently met a man who seems safe and compatible, but she does not trust her judgment. She is also triggered, almost to the point of having panic attacks, anytime he initiates physical intimacy. Learning relaxation skills, exploring ways to take care of herself to stay physically and emotionally safe, and acknowledging her grief and anxiety allows her to move forward in the relationship in the presence of such triggers. Eventually, Milika develops a deeper level of trust not just with her partner, but with human beings in general. Anxiety remains as an issue for her for many years, diminishing slowly in stops and starts.
Julie, 32, has been in and out of several abusive romantic relationships with women over the last decade. She recognizes the pattern but continues to forgive abusive behaviors by her partners and blame herself for their actions. Therapy helps her see how her abusers are like her mother, and this insight alone improves her ability to set boundaries. The support of her therapist, over about a year, helps Julie to accept her own needs as legitimate and begin advocating for herself with her partners.
Devon, 12, was severely beaten by caretakers and has little ability to form healthy attachment to adults. He picks on other children at school and has been shuffled around the foster-care system. His current caretakers want to adopt him, but only if they can find a way to manage his behaviors and win his trust. Family systems therapy with an experienced family therapist begins to alter the dynamics of the family’s interactions, and after many years of intense and difficult sessions, Devon is able to feel that he is safe.
Last updated: 02-26-2014
Abuse / Survivors of Abuse Articles