Abuse can leave psychological wounds that are harder to heal than bodily injuries. Survivors of abuse may have intense, negative feelings long after the abuse has ended. Anxiety, flashbacks, and trust issues are common in people who have experienced abuse. Abuse can impact a person’s ability to form relationships and find happiness.
Yet the effects of abuse do not have to be permanent. A therapist can help abuse survivors overcome challenges and address symptoms. Therapy can also help those who engage in abuse to stop harmful behaviors, though the individual must truly wish to change.
The Psychological Effects Of Abuse
Abuse in any form or context can harm an individual. Even after the abuse has stopped, survivors can still experience distress. Abuse survivors have a higher risk of mental health concerns. They may experience one or more of the following issues:
Anxiety: Survivors may be afraid of people or situations that remind them of their abuse experiences. They may be fearful of strangers, solitude, or sexual intimacy, depending on the nature of the abuse. Anxiety symptoms such as disrupted sleep or panic attacks are common in survivors of abuse.
Anger: Survivors of abuse may feel intense anger at their abusers. They may resent bystanders who knew of the abuse and failed to intervene. They might even be mad at themselves for being abused, believing they could or should have stopped it. Anger is a natural response to being abused. Survivors can learn to manage their anger in a constructive manner that will promote healing.
Depression: Feelings of sadness or emptiness are common among people who have experienced abuse. They may struggle to enjoy activities they used to like, especially if those activities remind them of the abuser.
Dissociation: Numbness, confusion, and out-of-body experiences may occur during or after abuse. Dissociation can help the person avoid the pain and fear associated with abuse. In rare cases, memories of abuse may be repressed. Some survivors may not have any conscious memory of the abuse.
Mood Issues: Irritability and mood swings affect many survivors of abuse.
Posttraumatic Stress (PTSD): Nightmares, hypervigilance, flashbacks, and other symptoms of PTSD may occur. Survivors are likely to avoid certain settings and situations that remind them of the abuse.
Shame: Survivors often experience guilt and shame. They may believe they deserved the abuse, were responsible for it or failed to stop it. Challenging these beliefs in therapy can help survivors of abuse transform these feelings.
Self-Destructive Behavior: Self-destructive behavior can take many forms. Some survivors will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Others might engage in self-harm, such as burning or cutting themselves. People may neglect their hygiene or sabotage any potential for success. These behaviors often indicate low self-esteem.
Trust Issues: Learning to trust others after the abuse has occurred can be challenging. Someone who has experienced abuse may struggle with physical intimacy.
While abuse can lead to mental health concerns, not every case results in extreme distress. The severity of the consequences can depend on the situation. For instance, someone may feel differently about abuse from a parent and abuse from a stranger. Whether loved ones recognized or dismissed the abuse can have a large impact.
Demographic factors can also affect how someone responds to abuse. For example, someone during childhood is more likely to develop mental health concerns. Gender roles can influence how one responds to sexual abuse. Socioeconomic status may decide whether someone receives adequate treatment.
Effects Of Child Abuse
In the U.S., Child Protective Services receives a report of abuse every ten seconds. According to state agencies, in 2014:
702,000 children experienced abuse or neglect.
Among these children, 1,580 died.
Over 70% of the children who died were under age two.
80% of these fatalities involved at least one parent as a perpetrator.