Emotional Abuse: Is It Traumatic?

Sad looking woman sitting on couchWhen a loved one hurts you through excessive criticism, put downs or abuse of any kind, you experience emotional and often simultaneous physical pain. But can emotional abuse be considered traumatic? Dr. Francine Shapiro defines two types of trauma—“big T” trauma and “little t” trauma. “Big T” trauma refers to what we commonly think of as trauma like war or natural disaster, “little t” trauma refers to incidents such as getting teased as a child or getting rejected by your first love. Most people experience “little t” trauma some time in their lives. People who live with and love someone emotionally abusive experience “little t trauma” on a daily basis. The experience of put downs, criticisms or whatever form emotional abuse takes, not only wears down self-esteem but also impacts the nervous system. Memories of the abuse can elicit negative feelings, tense physical sensations along with negative thoughts about yourself long after the abuse has occurred.

Human beings are born with a fight, flight, or freeze response. This is nature’s way of protecting us from danger. However, our minds can’t differentiate between the danger of let’s say the sound of a grizzly bear from the sound of the voice of someone who yells at you on a regular basis. In essence, prolonged exposure to emotional abuse can create similar symptoms to posttraumatic stress disorder experienced by a combat veteran. These symptoms include anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, and avoidance of situations or people that are reminiscent of the abuser, difficulty sleeping, flashbacks of abusive memories, difficulty focusing on the present or trouble concentrating. There can also be stress-related physical symptoms like migraines, digestive problems, fibromyalgia, or fatigue.

My work as a therapist is devoted to help heal those who have suffered from abuse. I believe the only way to facilitate deep and lasting healing is to treat the trauma associated with the abusive incidents. I do so with a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR has been well researched as an effective treatment approach to eradicate symptoms related to trauma. This technique can alleviate anxiety, depression, and other related disturbances resulting from emotionally abusive experiences. EMDR helps the individual eradicate any disturbance related to an abusive incident; the memory of the incident remains but the disturbing emotions and sensations associated with the memory are eliminated. Then, the person can move on in their life free from the “ghosts” of the past. EMDR can relieve symptoms fairly quickly.

Here’s a case example. “Jane” came to therapy lacking self-confidence in meeting men. When I took a look at her thorough history, it turned out she was mercilessly bullied by peers when she was a child. Jane agreed to EMDR treatment and after a few sessions, reported no leftover negative emotions or disturbances when she thought about the bullying. She reported feeling more confident and outgoing in the company of men. Even the way she carried herself changed; she held her head high with much better posture having an air of confidence.

You don’t have to suffer from trauma related to emotional abuse. You can free yourself of painful memories and move on with your life in a positive direction with the help of an EMDR trained therapist.

© Copyright 2011 by Felice Block, MA, LCPC, therapist in Lake Zurich, Illinois. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • betty


    January 19th, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    its amazing how each one of us is fighting a war on an everyday basis.courtesy between strangers is almost non-existent and almost everyone is out to scam the others.there would be a lot of mental strain in this I am sure.

  • Stressmommy


    January 20th, 2011 at 5:49 AM

    I have to say that I guess I am even shocked by the title of this article. Is emotional abuse traumatic? Of course it is. It can harm the very way that we see oursleves and handle our relationships with other people. It is sad to think that there are those people who would think that someone should just be able to easily bounce back from this kind of abuse. This is the kind of abuse that does not show on the outside but it can certainly take its toll on you on the inside.

  • Melinda Parker

    Melinda Parker

    January 20th, 2011 at 8:52 AM

    I’ve heard of emotional abuse between partners but this is the first time I’m reading about parents emotionally abusing their kids. Sometimes when we have our own problems, it is reflected in the way we deal with our kids. This needs control from us for the betterment of our kids.

  • Jake


    January 21st, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Felice, the site you referenced at the end EMDRIA.com is in German. Is there an English version or different link?

  • Esther


    January 22nd, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    That actually had to be asked? I’ve seen people break down because of someone hurling verbal abuse at them to the point where it was probably criminal. Most people can take a slap or punch (not saying it’s better to be physically violent! Abuse is abuse. Period), but everyone has their berserk button and pressing it even once, could be catastrophic. If you can’t hold back from being emotionally or physically abusive, seek help.

  • Yvonne


    January 22nd, 2011 at 7:53 PM

    Let’s say you have a 13 year old that’s pregnant because she slept with her boyfriend. Is it right to call her a slut, whore, or any other slanderous names because she did? No, it’s not. Yes, they were both stupid to be having sex at that age and without protection, but nobody should be screamed at and insulted because of a mistake. Kids make mistakes, sometimes huge life-changing ones. If it’s your kid, you should help them through it. If it’s not your kid, what in God’s name gives you the right to abuse them? None of us leads a blameless life.

  • Lauren


    January 23rd, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    A lot of emotional abuse is directed at people with non-physical differences. Having a different political or religious stance, or a different sexual orientation can bring out the worst in your caregivers in a small amount of cases. It’s disgraceful that you can say “I’m conservative/atheist/gay/transgender/whatever” to your parents and wind up cold-shouldered for the rest of your life.

  • Kayleigh


    January 23rd, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    One of the most damaging forms of abuse in my opinion is false accusations. If they threaten to report someone to the police for hitting them when the person didn’t lay a single hand on them, that’s a level of abuse and deception that doesn’t just affect them. It also affects every individual who has genuinely been abused because it will make people wonder if they are lying.

  • getting it now

    getting it now

    March 24th, 2011 at 9:04 AM

    Having been physically and emotionally abused (1st black eye at 5) I am just beginning to see how the survival strategies I used as a child have worked against me as an adult. As a child, making needs,wants, or opinions known put me in the line of fire. Keep a low profile was the survival strategy. But as an adult it got morphed into not wanting to accept dinner invitations, feeling regret and fear at voicing opinions, and a whole list of other maladaptations. The memories don’t overtly haunt me, but the symptoms insidiously diminish me. I am just now understanding this.

  • Family Isolation

    Family Isolation

    April 23rd, 2013 at 7:03 AM

    I have a long history of being abused. My father beat my mother, and spanked us to the point of so much pain that we cried for hours. He would and still does punch holes in dressers and walls (age 77). I was also a victim of rape(s) at the age of 12 and 15. Then I married a psychologically abusive man. Divorced him and he continually stalked, harassed, and threatened me through my family, work and legally system for 12 years. I at that point had developed chronic PTSD and fibromyalgia. I was thrown out of my family due to this as they took his side. My family and doctor said ‘it was all in my head’ and to ‘get over it’ as they didn’t believe me(I had a full police investigation done and there was enough evidence to take it to trial 36 years later). My daughter walked out of my life for 4 years at the age of 14 without speaking to me. And now she is picking up his behaviours towards me and is threatening me financially and if I don’t behave the way she wants me to (I have to deny my emotions and feeling/thoughts)she says she is going to walk out of my life again. I am literally being held hostage. The only people who have positively gained from the negative criminal and bullying events in my life are my sister’s family (mother gives them large amounts of money), my brother (family home signed over to him), my ex (over $100,000), my daughter (every time I go to my home town she costs me over $1,000.00 and I am on disability) and the lawyers ($52,000); not me (total isolation, panic disorder, fear of people in general, can no longer practise profession, huge mortgage, extreme business loss, not invited to family events-told if I showed up no one would come, and poor health. I have tried every treatment out there to cope and just when I am getting better I get a ‘brick upside the head’ usually by my family. They do not believe in therapy. I should mention the my mother is a practising alcoholic and two of my nieces trained in human resources thus covering mental health issues and bullying. Ironically, the one with the university degree is the worst bully of the bunch. My sister also worked with traumatized women. She took a 48 hour course and it was like she read the Table of Contents of a psychology book and became a armchair psychologist. Again, knowledge is power, but in this case the dosage was not right. The key to this problem, in my opinion, is to create a community of victims of bullying so that we can stand together and not feel so alone and afraid. Power in numbers!

  • Linda D.

    Linda D.

    July 24th, 2017 at 1:43 PM

    I am in deep heart break, I am being bullied by 2 grown family members, that’s always setting me up to be humiliated and left alone to deal with something that wasn’t my fault, I broke the silence of family abuse and now my family is making life hard for me. All because of the family name.

  • Felice Block

    Felice Block

    July 24th, 2017 at 2:25 PM

    Know that you’re not alone. Unfortunately, the people closest to us can hurt us the deepest. Uncovering a family secret puts you in a vulnerable position. You know the truth; stay strong in that and get support from friends or a therapist.

  • Brandy


    January 31st, 2015 at 10:20 PM

    How do I handle being harassed by my ex husband and his police and military friends following me 24/7 and doing other horrible things to me. He has tried to force me to leave a city that I love. This man is now mentally beating his new wife down.

  • laura


    August 21st, 2015 at 9:32 AM

    I’m not only the victim of emotional abuse but also bullying by the same person. This person is trying to destroy my life and my friendships. I cry on a nightly basis and suffer from social anxiety at this point. I’m adult in my 40’s and I thought I’d never have to deal with this. If anyone sees or hears of someone putting another person down I’d hope that they would have enough sense to tell that individual that they should stop and that they don’t approve or want to hear what they say. I can only hope and pray that this all ends very soon for me.

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