Category: <span>Emotional Abuse</span>

Words as weapons: the effects of chronic verbal abuse in childhood

If you still go around saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, it is time you revaluated that belief. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explains in her brilliant new book “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain”, exposure to verbal abuse sustained over a long period has other significant harming effects that go beyond low self-esteem. Because the brain regions that process language also control the insides of our bodies, verbal abuse also impacts heart rate, glucose levels and the flow of chemicals that support our immune system. As kind words make us feel loved, calmer, and stronger, aggressive ones have the power to harm our physical health.

Words, then, are tools for regulating human bodies. Other people’s words have a direct effect on your brain activity and your bodily systems, and your words have the same effect on other people. Whether you intend that effect is irrelevant. It’s how we are wired.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2020

When abusive individuals use words as weapons to mistreat, manipulate, and control others, their victims also become more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, anger, mood disorders in young adulthood, Immune dysfunction, and more metabolic dysfunction. In view of such facts, the connection between verbal abuse and illnesses of the mind and body should no longer be downplayed or ignored.

Words as weapons the effects of chronic verbal abuse in childhood
Exposure to verbal abuse may harm your physical health

Although the above is of high concern to anyone who works in mental health, what Barrett and other neuroscientists have demonstrated through extensive research on the effects of emotional and verbal abuse does not surprise me. As a trauma counsellor who specialises in childhood/developmental trauma, I have had several clients who grew up in highly dysfunctional family environments who suffer from at least one chronic illness or physical vulnerability like the ones mentioned above. Interestingly, their onset is mostly felt in their late teens and adult years. When our bodies are submitted to chronic stress through our development, the probability of it having a negative effect on our immune, respiratory, digestive, nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems is great.     

It is time our culture stopped normalising verbal abuse, be it in oral or written form. Whether you have witnessed or suffered verbal abuse, be reminded of how toxic it is to everyone involved and take active steps to stop perpetuating it. You can do that autonomously by reassessing your own rigid beliefs about verbal aggression, negative emotions and vulnerability, such as “If I let that get to me, it means I am weak”, and start honouring how you feel with tolerance. Whatever you do, be it getting out of your comfort zone through investing in assertive behaviours or speaking out about abuse, you are actively changing not only your own way of thinking, but that of our collective consciousness.

Reference:

Barrett, L. F. (2020). Seven and a half lessons about the brain. Picador: London, UK

6 Signs of CPTSD

6 Signs of CPTSD
CPTSD makes it difficult to regulate emotions

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder or CPTSD may develop as an effect of complex trauma. Complex trauma results from repeated exposure to adverse events over a prolonged period of time. Adult children of toxic parents and those who were raised in highly dysfunctional environments are, therefore, prone to have experienced childhood abuse and neglect (including emotional) which, in turn, increase their probability of identifying with the following 6 signs of CPTSD:

1- High reactivity and difficulties regulating emotions: unresolved childhood trauma is connected to unprocessed grief, built up anger and deep feelings of loneliness and abandonment depression that require conscious self-soothing efforts. Due to hypervigilance and high arousal levels, however, feelings of anxiety arise quickly and easily, making it harder to understand and manage one’s inner life. Emotions are often felt intensively and without a sense of matching or even belonging to specific context contexts.

2- Changes in consciousness: dissociation, difficulty remembering traumatic events, including the emotions related to it.

3- Negative self-perception: strong negative beliefs about oneself that are felt in the body even when they do not correspond to objective thinking (“I know I am competent/good enough/loveable, but I do not feel that way”). Strong inner critic, tendency to see the world in black and white, impostor syndrome and catastrophising are commonplace.

4- Relationship difficulties: difficulty trusting others and seeing relationships as sources of wellbeing. Natural tendency to gravitate toward abusive/toxic people and codependent and emotionally dependent relationships since they feel familiar and create a false sense of safety.

5- Distorted perception of the abuser: considering the abuser as powerful and able to cause continuous pain, control or even destroy one’s life, even when he or she is much older, physically and mentally weaker and emotionally immature. Tendency to obsess about feeling heard and having emotions and experience validated by the abuser and having recurrent thoughts/fantasies about talking to him or her, explaining things as well as planning revenge, etc.

6- Loss of systems of meanings: feelings of hopelessness and loss of purpose in relation to the world, life, people and spirituality.

Other symptoms may include chest pain, frequent headaches, migraine, armouring, bruxism, gastrointestinal problems, low libido, difficulty enjoying sex, weaker immune system, sleep disorders, flashbacks, avoidant behaviours, suicidal thoughts, higher susceptibility to addictive behaviours and depression.

If you have identified with the above, CPTSD management is possible via a very conscious and proactive attitude that includes a combination of trauma therapy, such as Attachment-Focused EMDR, and dedicated self-care.

3 signs you have a distorted perception of your abuser

3 signs you have a distorted perception of your abuser
Holding a distorted view of one’s abuser is common amongst abuse victims

Do you feel highly triggered and insecure in relation to your abuser, even after having cut contact with them? In order to comprehend how your judgement is affected by your trauma, here are 3 signs you have a distorted perception of your abuser:

1- You forget your abuser’s vulnerabilities

Abusive individuals use their charisma and influence, as well as fear, shame and guilt to control and manipulate others. Their “strength” is dependent upon their ability to engage their victims and make them feel insecure. Without that control over the other, however, they lose their “confidence” and, above all, their power. As a result, they feel unsettled and lost. Feeling disconcerted by their own inadequacy, their lack of empathy and pent-up anger come to the surface exposing their vulnerability. When you create a habit of reminding yourself of such moments and of your abuser’s weaknesses, you humanise them while protecting and empowering yourself.

2- You lose yourself in your abuser’s subjective reality

If you your abuser’s biased views keep popping up and corrupting your own whenever you are in the process of making important decisions, self-reflecting or contemplating change, you are still living according to their version of reality and not yours. Catch yourself whenever you notice your abuser’s presence in your head and politely, humorously or even aggressively, dismiss such dysfunctional and unproductive thinking, immediately. Then, reconnect to your body and mind with love, appreciation and respect for yourself.

3- You forget how resilient you are

Abuse that comes in any shape or form, be it verbal, physical (domestic violence), sexual or emotional/psychological, is damaging to anyone who is exposed to it, be it through direct or indirect means (also known as vicarious abuse). As the effects of trauma caused by abuse are numerous, the fact that you are functioning and doing the best you can to heal and lead a balanced and fulfilling life shows how resilient you are. When you act passively while feeling less than your abuser, however, shame and guilt take hold and connection with your higher and stronger self is temporarily lost.

Despite having a distorted view of one’s abuser being a common experience amongst abuse victims, it is helpful to reiterate that it is one of the effects of complex trauma. If you find yourself not fully trusting your judgement about your abuser’s character and what you went through, it is time to declutter your mind and gain some distance from your feelings, so to make room, again, for your truth and healthy sense of inner guidance.

Common negative beliefs of C-PTSD sufferers

Common negative beliefs of C-PTSD sufferers
Complex PTSD sufferers struggle to think and feel positively

C-PTSD sufferers display a view of themselves, the world and others through the distorted lens of complex trauma. Complex trauma victims struggle to maintain an objective and neutral perspective due to the negative adverse experiences that shaped their neurobiology and ability to live in the present without an exaggerated need to protect themselves against further hurt. If you believe that to be your case, it is helpful to identify the beliefs that perpetuate a sense of unsafety, hopelessness, powerlessness, disconnection and isolation, such as the ones mentioned below:

I am damaged goods.

I have no control over my emotions.

I am alone in this world.

I cannot trust anyone.

When things seem to be working out for me, I should expect something bad to follow.

If anyone finds out who I truly am, they will leave me.

I am unable to feel okay with whom I am.

I am not safe.

Nobody understands me.

I am cursed.

Intimate relationships are sources of pain, therefore, they should be avoided.

My mental health problem is beyond healing.

I am unable to make relationships work.

I am crazy.

I will never be able to do well in life like other people.

I have no control over my own body.

A few people might like me, but they do not know the real me because if they did, they would not.

I am less than others.

Things are harder for me than for other people.

I must make sure to always avoid people, things and situations that trigger me.

I will never feel free from my abuser(s).

I am powerless against my abuser(s).

I will only overcome my trauma if I manage to distance it from my mind completely.

I will only overcome my trauma if I manage not to feel any emotions related to it completely.

All my dysfunctional behaviours are effects of my trauma.

I cannot manage the effects of my trauma.

I will only feel okay once my abuser(a) is(are) dead.

When things get tough, it is best to move away from the problem.

Others see me differently because of what I went through.

Things will never work out for me.

As rigid beliefs like the ones listed above fail to make justice to our complexity, as well as our ability to manage vulnerabilities and live a fulfilling life, I would highly recommend you to take time challenging the ones that resonate, somehow, with your own thinking. If you need help to understand why they are dysfunctional and how to refer to them as such, click here to access my list of cognitive errors.

5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma

5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma
Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma

Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma, be it psychological/emotional and/or physical, of a single or complex nature (a series of adverse events). That is because some trauma victims, especially those who grew up in a stressful environment (developmental trauma), often suffer from hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a state of constant arousal, which is experienced in a conscious or unconscious manner. For a number of trauma sufferers, their brains are stuck on survival mode, even when there is no reason to feel unsafe. As a result, they may experience at least one of the following sleep problems:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up during the night or too early and struggling to fall back asleep
  • Feeling scared while trying to fall asleep
  • Having a strange feeling that there is an image, something or someone in the room
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Jerking awake right as falling asleep
  • Having racing and/or incomprehensible thoughts
  • Feeling scared of falling asleep
  • Not being able to fall back asleep after having a nightmare
  • Waking up scared and lost and not knowing why
  • Not being able to sleep in complete darkness and/or without background noise

To better deal with the above, I suggest the following 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma:

1- Tell yourself you are safe

As simple as this sounds, telling yourself, “I am safe”, silently and repeatedly, can remind you that there is nothing to worry about anymore. Reminding yourself that you are safe now works as to bring you back to the present. Moreover, when you say to yourself that you are OK and that there is no current threat to your well-being, you return to your own, grown up body, as well as to the safety of your own home (or wherever you are sleeping).

2- Physically comfort yourself

As the renowned trauma therapist Peter Levine explains in this video, by giving yourself a cuddle or touching your forehead and chest simultaneously, you can help yourself regulate the negative feelings that make you feel overwhelmed, such as fear and anxiety. I often recommend my clients to gently stroke their arms to feel a sense of tenderness and love for themselves, not only when having sleep disturbances, but also when feeling rejected. Touching, even when performed independently and without another human being, helps us calm down and relax.

3- Connect with your inner child

If you have suffered developmental/childhood trauma, your inner child requires your attention from time to time. As much as your self-esteem needs nurturing to stay high, that little boy or girl inside of you also craves attention and care to feel safe, particularly when your fears do not seem to correspond to that competent adult you have become. When that seems to be the case, close your eyes, breathe deeply for a few minutes and go to a place inside yourself where you can connect with that little person. Picture yourself as a figure of protection, love and safety, as your inner child’s ideal father or mother (not the ones you have in real life), and spend some time comforting, talking or even playing with him or her.

4- Do a breathing exercise

Breathing exercises are effective practices to reduce arousal and stress. Physiologically, they help calm down your nervous system, which is a simple and useful means to manage not just the symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, but also those of other anxiety disorders or episodes. I highly recommend this Pranayama exercise at least once daily to help you manage your anxiety and prevent sleep disturbances, as the ones above listed.

5- Challenge negative thinking

If your intrusive/racing/automatic/negative thoughts are discernible, challenge them immediately. If they are telling you that something bad is about to happen or other such nonsense, shut them up with objectivity. Regain control over your own mind and do not let them run the show. You can do that by questioning their meaning with rational explanations that expose their incoherence. If you are truly enraged by the effect they have had on you and your sleep, you can also openly curse them or tell them to go away and leave you alone.

The 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma related in this article could also become part of your self-care routine, and not be limited to what happens before and after sleep. The most productive way to manage hypervigilance is consciously and proactively. You do not to have to wait until you lose sleep to be made fully aware of its power. The earlier you start taking care of yourself and your emotional, psychological and physical health, the longer you will be able to enjoy its benefits.

What are the effects of psychological/emotional trauma?

effects of psychological/emotional trauma
The effects of psychological/emotional trauma may be causing you prolonged pain and distress

A traumatic event is an adverse experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope and integrate the memories and emotions connected to it. Psychological/emotional trauma is caused by damage that is not of a physical nature, but that severely affects the individual’s emotional and psychological wellbeing.  Making one feel worthless, blaming someone else for one’s mistakes or shortcomings, refusing to acknowledge or accept someone else’s feelings, displaying extreme ranges of mood, being extremely critical of the other person, belittling, humiliating, bullying, being verbally abusive and giving someone else “the silent treatment”, are some of the most common dysfunctional behaviours characteristic of abusive relationships.

Despite being the most common type of trauma, psychological/emotional trauma is the least talked about, understood and recognised by the general public as well as the psychiatric community. Due to its pervasiveness, however, it is vital that we explore the impact that psychological/emotional trauma has on our bodies, brains and emotions – honestly and openly. If you believe to have been psychologically/emotionally traumatised by an abusive parent, relative, partner or any other significant other, the following are the effects of psychological/emotional trauma that may be causing you prolonged pain and distress:

Emotional  

  • Feelings of intense sadness/depression: lack of enthusiasm for life, inability to feel happy and content, inability to enjoy the little pleasures in life, feeling like you do not belong or cannot connect with life, living on “automatic pilot”, only to fulfil your “duties” or the expectations of others.
  • Hopelessness: feeling weak, powerless, incompetent, unlovable
  • Guilt, shame and anxiety
  • Self-hatred and self-blame
  • Feeling like a bad or broken person
  • Vulnerability
  • Panic attacks
  • Intimacy problems: having difficulties to love and accept yourself, hiding or being ashamed of your weakness/vulnerabilities, repressing negative emotions, refusing to share the whole of you/the real you with somebody else.
  • Fearfulness
  • Feeling out of control
  • Anger
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Feeling detached, distanced from others

Behavioural

  • Self-harm: cutting, scratching, pinching, burning, banging or punching yourself
  • Compulsive and obsessive behaviours: fear of being contaminated by germs, of losing control and hurting others, of intrusive thoughts and images, of losing and forgetting things, accumulating junk, double checking locks, appliances and switches, having to have things arranged in a particular way, spending a lot of time washing or cleaning, counting or repeating certain words to reduce anxiety.
  • Addiction: substance abuse, alcohol abuse, gambling, shopping excessively
  • Self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviours: behaving recklessly and irresponsibly, comfort eating and/or self-medicating to “deal” with negative emotions, procrastinating, difficulty carrying out long-term goals and staying focused
  • Social isolation: refusing to respond, initiate or keep social contact
  • Parenting difficulties
  • Difficulties in relationships: choosing the wrong people as friends or partners, identifying with chaotic, dysfunctional and dramatic relationship styles
  • Pent-up rage: feeling an intense anger towards someone or a situation that does not subside with time
  • Sleep disturbances: difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early or in the middle of the night

Cognitive

  • Difficulty remembering traumatic memories
  • Losing track of time
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lack of concentration
  • Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Biased perception: displaying a strong tendency to interpreting faces, people’s behaviours and situations as negative, threatening or frightening

The effects of psychological/emotional trauma are as potentially harmful to our general wellbeing as physical trauma. Victims/survivors of this type of trauma tend to feel isolated and misunderstood in their pain, and can go through months, if not years of suffering before they find the correct route to their emotional healing. If you identify with any of the above and feel ready to make some positive changes in your life, trauma counselling can help. For more information about trauma therapy, please click here